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Why We Need an Underwater Internet of Things — Interview with Chiara Petrioli of Sunrise

To ensure sustainable development of offshore resources, we need to be able to monitor — and even anticipate — what happens underwater.


The commercial benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT) are clear for a wide range of industries — being able to remotely monitor machines in real-time to ensure safety and anticipate breakdowns. Yet some of the shiny promise of interconnectedness can get washed away at the shoreline, given the technical challenges of monitoring and communicating underwater.

Enter the underwater Internet of Things — a system of unmanned vehicles that roam the depths of the sea, communicating with underwater sensors and relaying the information to networks back on the surface. Chiara Petrioli, a professor at the Sapienza University of Rome, is working on such a system as the coordinator of Sunrise, a project being funded by the EU 7th framework program.

“Today we know very little about the ocean environment, and understanding our oceans is key to imagining a good future for humanity,” she says. “It’s so close to our economy — oil and gas exploration, aquaculture, wind energy production are examples of industrial activities which are more and more performed offshore.”

Being able to monitor the disruptive impact of underwater operations is necessary to ensure sustainable use of the ocean’s resources, according to Petrioli, as well as to improve the safety and efficiency of commercial activities.

Building an undersea Internet carries a range of challenges — from the technical difficulties of using acoustic-based or wireless optical communication to coordinating across borders. But once it place, it holds the potential to transform major coastal cities around the world, creating opportunities for urban dwellers to use devices for work and play regardless of whether they’re in or out of the water, she says.

“I think the future of cites should envision systems of underwater sensors and underwater autonomous vehicles monitoring the waterways and marine environments and connected to the critical monitoring systems that are part of the new Industrial Revolution of the Internet of Things that is happening right now. This is the challenge we are tackling in SUNRISE: building the Internet of Underwater Things technologies, which means low cost long endurance underwater sensors and autonomous vehicles, reliable and secure communications protocols, as well as strategies to allow the underwater assets to team up to perform tasks,” Petrioli says in an interview:


How can an underwater IoT help us harness the power of the ocean more sustainably?

We are exploring more and more resources offshore — whether in the oil and gas sector, which is developing at ever-increasing depths, or offshore wind turbines, which are expected to produce a significant amount of renewable energy in the future. These raise a number of issues, including operating in a safe and environmentally friendly way.

Already there are a number of systems that are used to monitor all aspects of offshore operations, but they have limitations. For example, remotely operated vehicles require a cable attached to a ship, which carriers a high cost and can only be operated when the sea conditions are good.

The vision is to go from cable systems to networks of different assets – sensors and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) — that can exchange information, cooperate and jointly complete complex tasks without involving humankind. This will increase safety and give us the capability to perform predictive maintenance, thus reducing the cost of offshore operations.


What needs to be in place for this to happen?

Sharing information is essential for a number of reasons. First, if we want to understand the ocean environment, we have to monitor large areas and exchange data, so need to come up with regional understandings around collaboration.

Also, we are talking about something that is still not there — we’re actually building the underwater Internet of Things right now. A big challenge is that we have legacy systems that aren’t able to talk to each other. So major issue we have to address in the next few years is standardization to enable these assets to communicate with each other, to become fully interoperable.

As these systems become able to communicate more autonomously, we’ll need strict regulations and legislation to ensure overall navigational safety and resolve potential problems that could occur in a densely populated marine environment.

Currently, there is a lack of an international legal framework encompassing the operation of unmanned vehicle systems. Navies have clearly identified that a major challenge will be the fact that future fleets will include unmanned underwater systems. Organizations like the European Defense Agency and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International are working on this.

I am optimistic these challenges will be resolved, because we have a clear need to be able to develop systems to monitor activity in the underwater world — and this has been recognized. So the premise of needing to agree in terms of regulations, legislation and standards is already there, and recent initiatives are going in the right direction.

(Top image: Courtesy of the Sunrise project)


Chiara Petrioli, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” is Project Coordinator of the Sunrise project.






All views expressed are those of the author.

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