In the tech world, it’s not enough to just have a good idea or good technology. The timing has to be right as well. For undersea networking company WFS Technologies, the time for its technology to gain wider adoption might just be now. The UK-based company is more than a decade old and provides wireless networks that can communicate underwater and underground using low-frequency radio waves.
Brendan Hyland, founder and CEO of WFS, says he has seen more interest from customers lately, everyone from oil companies that want to set up monitoring systems on their ocean wellheads to municipalities interested in smart cities.
The technology is called Terretooth when it’s used for underground deployments and Seatooth when it’s used under the water. There are a lot of challenges associated with delivering information wirelessly through both the ground and water. In water, for example, radio waves matter. The wider the wave, the lower the frequency and the better it travels through surfaces such as walls, rocks, water — even air.
That is why mid-range frequency bands such as 700MHz are so coveted by cell phone providers; they can go further and travel through more surfaces. It’s also why the current discussion of 5G radio technology in the extremely high-frequency millimeter wave band will require so many base stations. The signal just can’t go very far.
So, when trying to transmit data through the ground or underwater, you need very low-frequency bands. Using them, Hyland says WFS can transmit basic information across the seabed and about 30-40 meters through the water. If it’s transmitting closer to the surface the signal can “jump” and travel through the air, delivering a 1- to 2-kilometer range.
And that’s just the wireless transmission. WFS also makes sensors designed for the tough environment associated with the ocean. As of this year, it launched sensors that also have enough computing power to run machine learning models at the sensor. The models allow the system of sensors to measure existing conditions and adapt to them even if there isn’t a connection back to the broader internet.
The battery life on these sensors ranges depending on what they’re used for, but can typically last up to 30 years. In an environment such as the ocean, however, that seems overly optimistic. The battery may still have juice, but any electronics would probably die. But the ability to transmit data wirelessly and to process some data on the ocean platform changes the economics of adding sensors to an offshore drilling operation.
Wires are both expensive and labor-intensive to connect; they also corrode in the salty air and are easily eaten by rats. And with better algorithms that can provide more predictions about the overall health of machinery and the need for more efficient drilling operations, Hyland believes the time has come for his technology. He says interest from companies is expanding.
For the last few years, the company has made its money by providing wireless modules to a company that provides electric surfboards and kayaks for rescue operations. The company, WaveJet Propulsion, uses the technology to track rescue operations. But newer customers include Shell, a Japanese mining company, and contractors for the oil industry.
From an IoT perspective, I’m mostly interested in what new use cases a capable underground and underwater network could provide. Roadway monitoring or seismographic sensors in more places are one idea, but I would love to see other applications as well.