Underwater wi-fi

The same acoustic waves that dolphins and whales use to communicate when they’re thousands of miles apart can be used by humans to transmit information wirelessly, says Rosa Zheng, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Missouri S&T.

Rosa Zheng is taking a lesson from whales and dolphins to study underwater wireless communication.

Zheng recently received a CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to support her work on improving underwater wireless communication. Her research focuses on shallow-water communication, a tool needed for environmental monitoring and other efforts. Shallow-water communication faces additional challenges because waves and reflections off the ocean’s top and bottom surfaces affect the signals.
Zheng will receive $400,000 from the NSF over the course of five years to investigate how the reliability and data rate of acoustic waves can be improved. “The most difficult thing about acoustic communication is that a slight increase in range can reduce the data rate significantly, but we do not want to simply increase the transmission power,” Zheng explains.
Data transfer rates in current undersea communication systems are usually limited to a few kilobits per second, well below the megabits per second offered by radio frequency wireless communications. Zheng plans to use multi-input, multi-output (MIMO) technology – a technique that leverages multiple transducers and propagation paths – to increase the data transfer rate to hundreds of kilobits per second.
In collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Zheng has already conducted three ocean experiments using new transceiver designs. The results of those experiments are very promising, showing significant reductions in error rates and increasing the data rate by 10 times, she says.
With the CAREER Award funding, Zheng plans to use a cross-layer design between physical and network layers to achieve the overall high performance of underwater communication networks, build a field-programmable gate array hardware test bed for the designed transceivers, and conduct further ocean experiments.

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