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ECE Team to Develop Testbed for Underwater Communication

September 19, 2017

A Northeastern University team led by Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Associate Professor Tommaso Melodia will develop a first-of-its-kind underwater acoustic modem and networking testbed under a three-year, $1.57 million grant recently awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Joining Melodia in this potentially game-changing research project – "Development of a Software-Defined Networking Testbed for the Internet of Underwater Things” – are ECE Associate Professors Matteo Rinaldi and Stefano Basagni  and ECE Professor Milica Stojanovic.

“The goal of our work is to advance wireless networking and communications underwater,” says Melodia. Under the NSF grant, the Northeastern University team will perform research to create a platform over which to experiment with underwater communications and applications.

While companies have been building underwater modems for many years, most of those available on the market are inflexible, according to Melodia. “You can’t reprogram behavior or experiment with new communication schemes or protocols,” he says.

The team will build a new modem that features completely reprogrammable software and hardware – capabilities not available today. In addition, the platform will have the ability to generate acoustic waves at frequencies that are not typically used by current technology.

Advancing the state-of-the-art

Current modems enable communications at speed of a few kilobits per second up to a few miles’ distance, a capability that Melodia refers to as “robust, but ordinary.”  “This would be fine for text messages or email,” he notes, “but not for video streaming as there is not enough speed in your links.”

One of the team’s key goals is to experiment with high data rate communications underwater: transmitting video over distances of 100-200 meters, similar to today’s radio frequency Wi-Fi networks. “If we’re successful with our research, we should be able to achieve these results with the new platform,” he says.

Work on the underwater modem and network testbed – dubbed  “SEANet” –  will be performed at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass. While Melodia serves as project lead with responsibility for overall system integration, Rinaldi will build the new acoustic front end, the device that generates acoustic waves with bandwidth larger than is available today; Basagni, an underwater networking expert, will work on integrating the new network; and Stojanovic, an expert in signal processing and underwater communications, will focus on finding innovations in the communications layer. They will be joined by Postdoctoral Research Associate Emrecan Demirors in a leading role, and four Ph.D. and undergraduate students.

Results achieved under the NSF grant are primarily intended to benefit the U.S. academic research community, providing an experimental platform to advance research activities in underwater networking and data collection. Melodia notes that some of these capabilities may ultimately appeal to the U.S. Navy and to commercial entities such as the oil and gas industry. “If we’re successful, there should be a lot of interest from the commercial and DoD world,” he says.


Abstract Source: NSF

This project, developing SEANet, a new-generation software-defined underwater acoustic modem and a networking testbed, enables a leap forward in underwater communication. The SEANet testbed constitutes a game-changing development in the field, as it provides:

  • Fully reconfigurable modems with much higher data rates and flexibility than currently available and
  • Sophisticated communication and networking primitives unavailable with the current technology.

Although underwater acoustic networking technology has become key to most commercial and military activities at sea, currently it can only support mostly point-to-point, low-data-rate, delay-tolerant applications. Hence this technology remains in its infancy. Commercial acoustic modems use signaling schemes that often achieve < 20 kilobit/s with a link distance of one km over horizontal links.

The instrument under development would be composed of SEANet modems interconnected with terrestrial Internet through the NU-MONET network at the NEU Marine Science Center. Unlike existing commercial modems that are inherently based on fixed and inflexible hardware,

  • SEANet will be built around a new-generation Zynq System-on-Chip architecture board, with reconfigurable design supporting fully software-defined communication & networking functionalities, overcoming the lack of flexibility that limits the capabilities of existing commercial & experimental platforms in the fast-varying underwater acoustic channel;
  • SEANet will provide a set of newly-developed cross-layer platform-independent protocol development abstractions to be used by students and researchers to rapidly prototype new protocols and transmission schemes;
  • Networking protocols and transmission schemes will be software-defined based on abstractions discussed above, but hardware-executed by reconfigurable flexible processing hardware at runtime;
  • SEANet will be endowed with custom-designed ultra-wide band micro-electromechanical (MEMS) transducers that will allow the modem to transmit over much wider acoustic bandwidths (i.e., >= 2 MHz) than currently available existing modems.

As a result SEANet will be able to operate at lower power consumption than achievable state-of-the-art bulk piezoelectric transducers used in current commercial and experiment platforms, and reach rates in the order of 500 kilobit/s over 200 in range links and Mbit/s rates shorter range links (~ 50 m).

Broader Impacts:

The instrumentation provides the university and overall research community with unique capabilities for data collection in field installations. It also provides the underwater research community with an experimental platform that will be instrumental in advancing research activities in underwater networking. This development directly supports the research activities in communications, networking, security, robotics, and marine science at the institution. The platform will be broadly advertised and made available to the US academic community. The testbed will become a unique research and training facility for undergraduate and graduate students, offering to train minority scientists and professionals with system design skills in underwater signal processing, communications, networking, and system design.