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Internet of Things October 2023 Viewpoints

The Internet of Underwater Things

By George Chowdhury

Overview

The internet of underwater things (IoUT) is an emerging application of IoT devices for the wide-scale mapping and monitoring of the oceans. IoUT networks consist of buoys, submersibles, and static underwater devices equipped with an array of bespoke sensors. Oceanic environmental monitoring is widely needed for ocean-borne industry and to monitor the effects of pollution and climate change.

Description

The Internet of underwater things (IoUT) is a nascent application of sensor networks for large-scale monitoring of the ocean—both above and below the surface. IoUT devices can incorporate sensors for monitoring chemicals, pressure, temperature, and may be equipped with sonar for tracking objects in the water and even performing detailed 3D mapping.

In a recent research paper, a team of IEEE engineers from across several universities in Europe and Asia, proposed an alternative to batteries for powering IoUT devices. Their solution is motivated by mitigating the need for single use batteries for underwater sensors that limit the lifespan of networks and can become hazards when their charges run out. In the paper, the researchers describe a reinforcement learning algorithm for planning the trajectory of a fully autonomous underwater vehicle that will move between IoUT devices and charge them. The group propose powering underwater devices with supercapacitors—which charge faster and pose fewer environmental hazards than batteries—and employing simultaneous wireless information and power transfer techniques; transferring both power and information via acoustic signals. Acoustic power transfer—leveraging vibrations in water—has the advantage of operating at longer ranges than radio frequency or electromagnetic induction.

Commercial vendors are already deploying IoUT sensors. Wsense, a start-up that span out of the University of Sapienza, have deployed networks of buoys and subaquatic sensor to collect and sell data concerning pollutants and wildlife.

Implications

The adoption of innovative engineering methods to support nascent IoUT devices could have broad implications for the sustainability of the IoUT sector and beyond. Notably, the use of acoustic signals for both data and power transmission, with the employment of cost-effective transducers and advanced signal processing techniques, lends well to the rapid growth of the IoUT. A key use of IoUT is mapping the sea floor. The significance of such infrastructure for deep sea drilling and mining may be two-fold: data can aid in quantifying the potential damage from extracting resources and help governments and NGOs enforce legal accountability; mapping may also be used to discover deposits and aid in sustainable extraction.

Given emerging security issues surrounding IoT devices, monitoring of the oceans is likely to create friction between corporate entities and governments surrounding the deliberate or accidental monitoring of the movements of naval vessels. The whereabouts of military ocean assets, significantly nuclear submarines, is considered to be a matter of top secrecy. Practical benefits for governments include improved water safety—sensors could determine how many people are in an area of water and if they are in danger—along with the potential for improved border control.

Relevant Areas to Monitor

  • Environmental Regulation

    Regulations and public interests have been key drivers in the sensors industry. Rules in many nations that favor clean air, energy efficiency, and safety mean that sensors are all but mandatory for monitoring emissions, air quality, water quality, and weather. Emerging regulations promise to drive large deployments of connected sensors.

  • Internet of Underwater Things

    Universities and companies are developing sensor networks for monitoring the ocean. Network platforms may include buoys, submersibles, boats, and static underwater sensors equipped with bespoke sensors. IoUT networks can be used to aid ocean-born industry, monitor pollution, conservation efforts, border control, and life guarding.

Impact Scale

On a scale of low, medium, or high, the anticipated level of impact for this topic is: Medium.

Impact Timing

On a scale of now, 5, 10, or 15 years, the anticipated impact timing for this topic is: Now to 5 Years.

Opportunities in the Following Industry Areas

  • Agriculture/Fishing/Food
  • Internet of Things
  • Transportation/Logistics
  • Sustainability/Climate Adaptation
  • Policy/Advocacy

Relevant to the Following Explorer Technology Areas