A lot of water can wreak havoc on wireless communications – that’s one reason using RFID tags on chemical drums and other liquid-intensive applications has always been a challenge. So you can imagine that trying to wirelessly communicate underwater would be difficult. Manufacturers have created a number of proprietary acoustic systems to overcome that hurdle, but they are largely not interoperable.
That’s about to change thanks to NATO. The NATO STO Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) located in La Spezia, Italy, has developed a standard for underwater acoustic communications known as JANUS (named for the Roman god of openings and gateways), which is now recognized as a NATO standard by all members.
According to a release from NATO, JANUS is a “digital underwater signaling system that can be used to contact underwater devices using a common format; announce the presence of a device to reduce conflicts; and enable a group of underwater devices … to organize themselves into a network.”
There are a number of approaches to underwater acoustic communication, but in general these systems provide relatively low data rates.
According to the organization, this is the first time such a communications protocol has received this level of international recognition. The technology could be used for harbor protection, maritime surveillance, surveying offshore wind farms or pipelines or other applications.
“In the air we can simply connect our gadgets to any WiFi hotspot without having to worry about the compatibility,” says João Alves, Principal Scientist and Project Leader at CMRE. “Until now, there wasn’t anything even remotely similar for the underwater domain.”
The CMRE is trying to create a network that would allow undersea robots to communicate. "Robots can behave intelligently and act as a team," says Alves. “For example, one of the robots could find some interesting feature and call the rest of the team.”
By communicating below the surface, the robots could interact autonomously. The connection to land-based systems would be made via gateway buoys equipped with radio links.
“This is particularly important for search-and-rescue operations,” says John Potter, a scientist at the CMRE Strategic Development Office. “Autonomous vehicles are relatively inexpensive and of course unmanned, so they can be sent to do dirty, dangerous jobs.”
In field service, such systems could potentially be used for underwater repair and maintenance of offshore oil rigs, wind turbines, and other structures. Having a standard would also mean that different manufacturers equipment could communicate with each other – making it easier for these devices to provide warnings (for example, to help divers or robots avoid colliding with an asset) or identification information.
For more information about how JANUS works, visit the JANUS Wiki.