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Think underwater internet is impossible? This Singapore startup is proving people wrong

Terence Lee
underwater diver selfie

Human beings are, first and foremost, land creatures. We spend most of our time above water, and if we stay submerged for too long, our skin gets wrinkly, our oxygen depletes, and we die. Because of that, most of our technologies work when dry. Smartphones break down after a few seconds in the toilet bowl. Cars drive on roads, not out at sea. In fact, our entire cellular and wi-fi infrastructure works only on land, even though most of the world is blue.

But that isn’t stopping a startup called Subnero from bringing the internet into the deeper and darker parts of the earth. Take a selfie at a depth of one kilometer and post it on Instagram? Yes, it’s possible.

Why would anyone want the technology though? It turns out that there’s plenty of important business going on underwater.

Submarines – military and commercial, manned and autonomous – need to talk to one another and with the surface world. Divers enter the waters for a variety of reasons, including research, recreational, and economic. Oil and gas companies drill for black gold at depths of beyond 5,000 feet. If you’re in the waters for an extended period of time, you need to find your bearings. And no, GPS doesn’t work underwater.

Yet, despite the money that can be made from plowing in the oceans, communicating there is ridiculously difficult and expensive.

The weird zone

subnero team

Left to Right: Manu Ignatius, Shanmugam Mpl, Tian Chang Ong

Radio waves do not work underwater, so sound waves have been the de facto standard in those areas.

“Water is not like air or land. There are a lot of reflections,” explains Tian Chang Ong, Singapore-based Subnero’s business development manager and mechanical engineer.

“If there’s a temperature gradient, the sound will reflect in the middle of the water. You would hear something at the top, you won’t hear anything, and suddenly you hear it again. It gets trapped in zones in the water. Also the speed of sound changes with temperature, salinity, and pressure.”

The weird nature of the seas is causing transmitters and receivers to become slow, unreliable, and expensive. Sound travels 200,000 times slower than radio waves. Today’s technology moves a message from point A to point B in a straight line, but the temperamental waters can alter its trajectory and cause a lot of downtime. That’s for stationary things. Syncing up moving objects is even tougher.

“There’s no reliable way for drones to communicate with each other. They can’t really move properly into swarm robotics underwater yet, that’s because it’s so hard to talk over over the distance of a kilometer. If you want your robots to be a couple of meters away that’s fine. But if you want to look for something underwater, you’d want a big net,” says Shanmugam Mpl (Shan), the lead hardware engineer.

One solution would be to bring the drones to the surface, transmit a message, and submerge again. But that isn’t practical if you’re studying marine life at a depth of six kilometers.

Shallow waters in the tropical belt are especially bad for undersea communications. There’s a lot of biological noise, “like static crackling all over,” Shan describes it. The biggest culprit? The snapping shrimp, which produces a “pop” sound strong enough to paralyze its prey.

“Imagine a fish market with a lot of echoes. And you’re trying to talk to someone. Everyone’s yelling, and you can’t really hear to begin with [...] and you’re just going ‘What? What? What?’. That’s pretty much what happens in Singapore waters,” says Shan.

Internet at the speed of sound

Subnero has been working on overcoming the mirror effect of the seas and the cacophony of noises from its tiny inhabitants. Founded in 2012, the startup licenses technology developed over a decade at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Another key member of the team is Manu Ignatius, who was part of the team at NUS which developed the technology.

The company already has customers (which it’s secretive about), and it’s the only Asian finalist at Cisco’s Internet of Things global startup competition this year.

Subnero is a “full-stack” startup in the complete sense. If it succeeds, it could lay the foundations for underwater internet technology, just like how TCP/IP has defined the world wide web. It’ll be a pioneer in the truest sense.

While current technology transmits data from point A to point B, Subnero deploys nodes – underwater modems – in a mesh network which allows a message to take multiple routes to reach the receiver. A floating buoy acts as a bridge between this underwater web and the cellular network on the surface. The result is that even if one link gets cut off, the message can still be transmitted through other links.

subnero

It has also figured out a way to transmit sound that lets it cut through the noise in the sea, making it ideal for the rich, tropical waters close to shore. The network transmits data at just 10 kilobits per second for now, equivalent to the early days of the internet. It’s about one-fifth the speed of the old, noisy 56 kilobits per second modems we’re familiar with. So that Instagram photo of yours could take minutes to get posted online.

But still, that’s already a vast improvement over underwater communications today.

The network also enables precise underwater geo-location with an accuracy up to 10cm. As a node submerges, an initial lock is made via GPS of its initial location. Then, through a triangulation process with surrounding nodes, users can determine a vessel’s subsequent location as it travels under the sea.

This video shows how Subnero can help users quickly detect and report pipeline faults:

The startup, which has been self-funded so far but is in the final stages of raising a series A round, is up against much larger companies like Teledyne.

But the team believes its unique mesh network concept can tide it through. It has developed the underwater modem underpinning its technology, and also created a UnetStack – the software behind its network – which is freely available for academic and research purposes. The open platform lets developers build applications to utilize underwater internet through an application programming interface (API). Others can also mount the software onto their own undersea modem designs, similar to the Windows ecosystem today.

While space is said to be the final frontier, plenty of exploring can still be done here on earth. Developing a reliable communications system underwater could be key to helping oceanographers, researchers, and academics accelerate the pace of uncovering hidden treasures on our seabeds and ocean floors.

“We have been going to space for 50 years and we can communicate between planetary systems. But we’re still not very good at communicating underwater. We haven’t even explored more than a few percentage points of the ocean,” says Ignatius.

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