Illinois startup OceanComm demonstrates fastest wireless data rates undersea


Laura Schmitt for CSL

OceanComm, a startup company founded by University of Illinois researchers, recently achieved important performance goals in its quest to provide the U.S.Navy with undersea wireless data capabilities comparable to Wi-Fi speeds currently available on land.

Oceancomm wireless streaming
An image captured through acoustic modem (480p @ 12 fps ).

In a series of experiments earlier this year, OceanComm team members demonstrated Wi-Fi-like data rates—megabits per second (Mbps)—and high-quality video streaming from its M1-H150 high-frequency acoustic modem, which was deployed on a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) about 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface off the coast of San Diego.

“There’s nobody on the planet that can do what we do now,” said Andrew Singer, the Fox Family Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Coordinated Science Lab (CSL) faculty member, and OceanComm CEO.

According to OceanComm Chief Technology Officer and Illinois alumnus Thomas Riedl (ECE PhD ’14), the company’s M1-H150 high-frequency acoustic modem is 10 to 100 times faster than competing systems and delivers data transfer rates in excess of 1 Mbps at 100 meters.  

Compared to Wi-Fi speeds on land, this may seem slow, but it’s not considering signals on land travel at the speed of light on electromagnetic waves (671,000,000 mph), whereas signals in water travel at the speed of sound on acoustic waves (3,315 mph).OceanComm initially focused on distances up to about one kilometer. At those distances, the tetherless link still provides sufficient data rate to control ROVs and live stream its camera feed.

OceanComm is collaborating on a mine neutralization system that combines technology from RE2 and VideoRay, leveraging VideoRay’s inspection-class Defender ROV outfitted with RE2’s robotic arms that apply computer vision and machine-learning algorithms to enable autonomous manipulation capabilities. This collaborative effort will employ OceanComm’s wireless acoustic modem to supervise and task the ROV at extended depths.

“Our job is to break the tether on the vehicle,” added Riedl. “In [our] January [experiments], we showed that the video link is reliable with all the noise from wave action, weather, and other conditions.”

The acoustic modem wirelessly streamed high-quality video of an old aircraft submerged 100 meters below the ocean surface as the attached ROV roamed through and around the crash site, clearly showing the remains of the cockpit, wings, landing gear strut, and a colorful array of passing fish and marine life.

In addition to the naval applications, OceanComm’s technology is of interest to offshore energy companies performing exploration, maintenance and repair tasks with larger, truck-sized ROVs. They are all tethered and many of them require a dedicated ~$100,000 per day ship to handle their tether, said Riedl. Total cost for this ‘tether support’ is about $10 billion per year.

Reaching the recent research milestone is particularly rewarding for Singer, who contributed to the first acoustic modems that the Navy fleet deployed in the 1990s. Further, the company is based on his former student Riedl’s doctoral research, which introduced novel mathematical techniques to prevent transmitted signals from being corrupted by Doppler effects under water.

“Thomas, who is extremely gifted mathematically, was working on a very theoretical PhD thesis,” said Singer. “We were doing experiments where we deployed things in the ocean, which got him interested in the process of solving a problem, deploying it, and seeing it make a massive improvement over what the state-of-the-art was at the time.”

In addition to Riedl, the company employs several other Illinois Electrical and Computer Engineering alumni, including Embedded Software Engineer J.J. Martinez (BSCE ‘19), Hardware Engineer James Wyeth (BSEE ‘19), and Senior Engineer James Younce (BSEE ‘14).