'SUNRISE' Researchers Submerge the Internet of Things

Academic researchers are developing communication protocols that commercial partners are using to build the IoT underwater, where networks of sensor-enabled drones could open a wide range of new commercial and research applications.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 14, 2014

The Internet of Things has the potential to cover every inch of Earth, thanks to the reach of cellular and satellite-based communications technologies. However, around 70 percent of the planet is underwater and, therefore, currently outside the IoT's reach. But Chiara Petrioli, a professor of computer science at the University of Rome La Sapienza, is leading an international research project focused on developing communications protocols for a submersible Internet of Things.

The research, called the SUNRISE project (while it's a bit lost in translation, "SUNRISE" is derived from a longer title: Sensing, monitoring and actuating on the UNderwater world through a federated Research InfraStructure Extending the future internet) is developing protocols for transmitting and receiving data via acoustic signals by autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), also known as underwater drones. Developed three years ago, SUNRISE receives the majority of its funding through the European Commission's Future Internet Research and Experimentation (FIRE) program. The communication technology has already been put to use during an effort to locate a cargo container that had fallen into the sea near a port in Portugal, and is currently being evaluated for a wide range of other applications for the oil and gas industry, port security, and environmental testing and monitoring.

A trio of underwater drones deployed at a marina in Porto, Portugal. The devices later detected a sunken cargo container.
"Our approach is [to use] multiple technologies and to be adaptive," Petrioli says. She and her team are building a software-defined communication stack known as SUNSET (a nickname derived from the Sapienza University Networking framework for underwater Simulation Emulation and real-life Testing), designed to test protocols for underwater sensor networks and then evaluate these through software simulation and in-lab emulations, followed by underwater trials. This is done independent of specific underwater hardware platforms.

Drones can be outfitted with a range of sensors that measure carbon dioxide, pH, pressure, conductivity, salinity, methane or oxygen levels. They can also be outfitted with cameras and microphones. If the drones are fitted with mesh-networking radios, they could communicate with each other, passing data up to and receiving instructions from a central gateway on the water's surface.

The earliest adopters of such underwater drones, Petrioli says, will likely include oil and gas companies, which could use the drones to monitor the health of offshore drilling platforms or pipelines and alert the companies to signs of weakness— by detecting air bubbles escaping from pipes, for instance—that require preventative maintenance. In fact, the project has spun off a commercial provider of underwater sensor network technology, called WSense, which is working with a team of researchers in the Netherlands to test an underwater drone that could monitor leaky oil pipelines.

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