Submarines and planes never talked to each other; now they will

Direct data transmission between underwater submarines and airborne planes has not been achieved so far. Crossing this “air-water boundary” remains a longstanding challenge as radio signals used by planes die rapidly underwater, and sonar waves sent by submarines can’t reach the air.

These limitations have caused problems for a variety of applications, ranging from submarine-to-plane communication to ocean exploration. This is something that has also made recovery of wrecked submarines, ships and planes extremely difficult.

However, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have invented a new method that can effectively solve this issue. Their system involves an underwater transmitter and a highly sensitive receiver above the surface that can enable subs and planes to communicate with each other in the future.

“Trying to cross the air-water boundary with wireless signals has been an obstacle. Our idea is to transform the obstacle itself into a medium through which to communicate,” Fadel Adib, who leads the research, said in a statement.

Decoding tiny vibrations

The newly designed system is called TARF, which stand for “translational acoustic-RF communication.” It uses the submerged transmitter to send a sonar signal to the water’s surface. This signal causes tiny vibrations that become the 1s and 0s transmitted while a receiver above the surface reads them and decodes the sonar signal.

Water-Air-Communication
MIT Media Lab researchers have designed a system that allows underwater and airborne sensors to directly share data.
Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT

Although still in its infancy, TARF is expected to be a “milestone” in wireless communication. Researchers believe that they system will help military submarines send messages to airplanes without surfacing that can compromise their location.

TARF can also help underwater drones monitoring marine life send data to researchers without constantly resurfacing from deep dives, researchers said.

Search for planes that go missing underwater is another key area where TARF can turn out to be a game-changer.

Rigorous testing

The radar reflection is going to vary a little bit whenever you have any form of displacement like on the surface of the water. By picking up these tiny angle changes, we can pick up these variations that correspond to the sonar signal, Adib said.

As part of the research, scientists took TARF through 500 test runs conducted in a water tank and in two swimming pools. In both settings, TARF successfully and accurately decoded various data, including one that read: “Hello! from underwater.”

At the moment, TARF can accurately decode signals in waves lower than 16 centimetres (6.3 inches). However, scientists are working to refine and improve the system’s performance.

“I expect this new radar-acoustic technology will benefit researchers in fields that depend on underwater acoustics (for example, marine biology), and will inspire the scientific community to investigate how to make radar-acoustic links practical and robust.” Aaron Schulman, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California at San Diego, said.

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