Wi-Fi and 4G-LTE Networks Breaks Through Underwater-Air Barrier

Article By : Nitin Dahad

UK to get an air-to-ground 4G LTE network for emergency services, while KAUST builds prototype underwater WiFi system using LED or laser...

Want 4G services at 10,000 feet in the air? Or how about sending images in real-time while you are scuba diving? We seem to be getting there slowly, with two recent announcements, though at the moment they are still for specialized use.

For air-to-ground communications, UK-based mobile network operator EE and Nokia said they are going to build the world’s first 4G LTE air-to-ground connectivity network for emergency services. And for underwater WiFi, a research team from KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) has built a prototype ‘Aqua-Fi’ underwater wireless internet service using LEDs or lasers.

Underwater WiFi

Connecting to the web underwater is a struggle, especially for scuba divers who want to send sea life data images in real-time. “People from both academia and industry want to monitor and explore underwater environments in detail. Wireless internet under the sea would enable divers to talk without hand signals and send live data to the surface,” explains Basem Shihada, associate professor for computer science at KAUST and co-author of a paper published in IEEE Communications Magazine.

Underwater communication is possible with radio, acoustic and visible light signals. However, radio can only carry data over short distances, while acoustic signals support long distances, but with a very limited data rate. Visible light can travel far and carry lots of data, but the narrow light beams require a clear line of sight between the transmitters and receivers. Shihada’s team has built a prototype underwater wireless system, Aqua-Fi, that supports internet services, such as sending multimedia messages using either LEDs or lasers. LEDs provide a low-energy option for short-distance communication, while lasers can carry data further, but need more power.

The Aqua-Fi prototype used green LEDs or a 520-nanometer laser to send data from a small, simple computer to a light detector connected to another computer. The first computer converts photos and videos into a series of binary data, which is translated into light beams turning on and off at very high speeds. The light detector senses this variation and turns it back into binary data, which the receiving computer converts back into the original footage. The researchers tested the system by simultaneously uploading and downloading multimedia between two computers set a few meters apart in static water. They recorded a maximum data transfer speed of 2.11 megabytes per second and an average delay of 1.00 millisecond for a round trip. “This is the first time anyone has used the internet underwater completely wirelessly,” said Shihada.

Aqua-Fi uses radio waves to send data from a diver’s smartphone to a “gateway” device attached to their gear, which would send the data via a light beam to a computer at the surface that is connected to the internet via satellite. (Image: KAUST)

In the real world, Aqua-Fi would use radio waves to send data from a diver’s smartphone to a “gateway” device attached to their gear. Then, this gateway sends the data via a light beam to a computer at the surface that is connected to the internet via satellite. Aqua-Fi will not be available until the researchers overcome several obstacles. “We hope to improve the link quality and the transmission range with faster electronic components,” explains Shihada. The light beam must also remain perfectly aligned with the receiver in moving waters, and the team is considering a spherical receiver that can capture light from all angles.

Shihada said, “We have created a relatively cheap and flexible way to connect underwater environments to the global internet. We hope that one day, Aqua-Fi will be as widely used underwater as WiFi is above water.”

4G LTE air-to-ground network from 10,000 feet

Meanwhile, EE, a part of BT Group in the UK, said it has signed an agreement with Nokia to build what it said is an industry-first nationwide 4G LTE air-to-ground network for the emergency services across Great Britain. This network will enable uninterrupted high-speed 4G broadband coverage to support up to 300,000 emergency service personnel working above ground from 500 feet up to 10,000 feet. It is expected to provide seamless connectivity between ground operations and air, connecting people, sensors, aircraft and helicopters with the highest security and reliability.

As part of the agreement, EE will provide the active network equipment for a full reference facility, and an initial seven site trial network. Following the trial, EE will deploy the network equipment in over 80 Home Office acquired cell sites across the UK. Nokia will provide design support, network equipment, installation and commissioning services to ensure timely delivery of the emergency services network (ESN) 4G LTE air-to-ground network.

The UK’s EE and Nokia are building what they claim is the industry’s first 4G LTE air-to-ground service (Image: EE)

The first trial of this network will take place over the coming months in North Wales and London, enabling EE, Nokia and the Home Office (a government department responsible for security) to test the hardware capability over different terrain along with the hardware deployment process, the software capability, and the operational support of the complete air-to-ground service, prior to the roll out of the final air-to-ground network.

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