It may now be possible to send an email from a submarine to an airplane

The technology that we use to communicate today is astounding. It has overcome all kinds of natural barriers and is to the point that we can potentially talk with anyone anywhere on the globe. Anywhere except for from in a submarine under the surface of the sea to an airplane in the air. That is until now.

The air-water boundary

We’ve all seen movies where a submarine has to come to the surface to send or receive messages. Of course it is dramatic as the submarine is now vulnerable to the enemy creating more tension. The reason for this is that subs communicate using sonar signals. These work extremely well under the water but not out of it. A plane uses radio waves which do not travel well under the surface of the ocean. Simply put the two cannot communicate with each other.

This air-water boundary is the last real communications hurdle of the planet. Currently to mitigate it either a submarine must come to the surface or it uses a buoy which can pick up sonar waves and translate them into radio waves. Militarily neither are good options as it would render the submarine or its communications vulnerable to the enemy.

The breakthrough

That may have changed. Researchers at MIT may have developed a way for a submarine to communicate with an airplane. A speaker was placed underwater and it was found that an extremely high frequency (EHF) radar was able to detect the ripples in the water created by the speaker. The speaker was used to aim sonar signals at the surface and the ripples that are created could potentially be used to encode a binary message, which was tested successfully in a swimming pool on the campus of MIT. The results were detailed in a paper released at SIGCOMM in Budapest, Hungary.

For now the system known as Translational Acoustic RF Communication (TARF) only works in laboratory conditions as waves of more than 6 inches skewed the results. Of course for anyone out on the ocean the waves will most certainly be more than six inches so as of right now this has no practical real-world application yet. The other drawback is that only the submarine would be able to send a message to the plane. It does not work the other way around. Researchers are working on overcoming both of those problems.

More than just military benefits

Even if this is only the submarine or a device under the surface being able to communicate with the surface there is still practical applications for that. Just think of MH370 and the search for its black box. How much easier would that have been if it could have been detected from the air rather than having to detect it from a ship? While no lives would have been saved millions of dollars, thousands of hours of labor could have been saved and one of the great mysteries of our time solved. Science could also be greatly enhanced since underwater drones or submarines would not need to surface to send information and drones would be able to stay down for a much longer time thus maximizing deep water research time. Of course military applications for this should be obvious.

The technology that we have developed can do amazing things. There are times that we think that we have come as far as we can, that natural barriers are just impassable but yet time and time again scientists and researchers have overcome that. Just think what we will be able to do in even 20 years. We probably cannot even fathom some of it.

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