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Undersea bots used to beat raiders with the latest archaeosubs
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Undersea bots used to beat raiders with the latest archaeosubs

Posted by Zenobia HegdeApril 4, 2018

There’s huge untapped potential in the blue parts of the planet. The Internet of Things won’t really have gone global until it can work in the sea, which covers two-thirds of the planet. For instance, there are many historical underwater sites that have yet to be discovered.

Our recorded history isn’t always accurate, as it tends to be written by those with the loudest voices – the victors. In that sense, history becomes a sort of ‘time-hardened’ marketing, which needs constant questioning. Examination of underwater artefacts can reveal the real unreported truth about our ancestry.

There are 1,000 sunken ships in the Mediterranean, somewhere in the stretches between Sicily, mainland Italy and northern Africa. Some will date back to when Rome fought sea battles with Carthage. Examination of these remains can give us a more accurate depiction of what goods, services and even people were being traded between ancient civilisations.

Marine vandals

Sadly, the scattered remains that are found often tell another story. Many of these sunken archaeological treasures are being looted. One boat which was thought to have originated from Egypt in 200 AD but was found on the seabed off Northern Italy had been completely ransacked by modern day looters. There is a race against time to recover all these vital historical clues before the vandals get to them with their dredging nets. 

Archeosub Zeno AUV

Standing against them is an alliance of academics and commercial ventures who are applying their expertise on marine archaeological investigations as part of the EC EASME project Archeosub. Partners include the University of Rome La Sapienza, University of Florence and its spin-off MDM.

W•Sense, the commercial arm of the University of Rome, specialises in creating underwater wireless networking systems. Its research & development (R&D) is led by professor Chiara Petrioli, who has made history herself by inventing crucial new communications protocols for sending signals through the sea.

Old and new uses

This technology has multiple field applications. Old mines can be cleared and new oil fields searched for. The natural environment needs to be monitored, since underwater volcanoes and geological faults can bring about the end of times.

As IoT Now has reported previously, W•Sense was part of Sunrise, an EU-funded project to develop an underwater IoT. The usual mediums of communication, such as radio waves and light, don’t work well in the murkiness and high viscosity created by sea water’s saline suspensions and covalent bonding. Instead, the project has emulated the techniques of underwater mammals, such as whales and dolphins, that use acoustic communications.

Sunrise ended in 2016, after having tested acoustic modems mounted on special nodes and placed underwater. Each one learned to communicate with the others, with remote operators and, of course, with underwater devices.

Archeosub Zeno AUV inside view

Until recently, the available technology for exploring underwater has largely revolved around research shipsHowever, this type of heavy oceanic machinery can cost up to £10,000 (€11,450) a day. Diving expertise is rare and gets ever more expensive the deeper the expedition. At depths of 800 metres, even the most experienced diver has very strict limits on the amount of time they can spend gathering information. Archeosubs have no such problem and they are much better communicators and team players.

Subsea drones

At a fraction of the cost, the W•Sense partnership uses sensor-nodes and underwater drones (or Autonomous Underwater Vehicles – AUV) to investigate, monitor and protect as many wrecks and submerged cities as possible. MDM is currently developing Zeno, a new low-cost manta-shaped drone.

Professor Chiara Petrioli and her R&D group have also developed a new compression algorithm for the videos and photos that will be sent in real time from the underwater drones to their remote operators via nodes.

These ‘Archaeosubs’ are protected from another type of criminality (hacking) by a form of encryption created by Petrioli. Again, adaptations were needed to be made in order to work in marine conditions. “If we used the same techniques that are employed above ground the processing load would kill the system,” says Petrioli.

The aim of this mission is three-fold: discovery first, then security and finally, tourism. There is so much we can learn from these sites, but so little time.

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Zenobia Hegde

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