Underwater Backscatter Networking

JunSu Jang and Fadel Adib. ACM SIGCOMM 2019


We present Piezo-Acoustic Backscatter (PAB), the first technology that enables backscatter networking in underwater environments. PAB relies on the piezoelectric effect to enable underwater communication and sensing at near-zero power. Its architecture is inspired by radio backscatter which works well in air but cannot work well underwater due to the exponential attenuation of radio signals in water.

PAB nodes harvest energy from underwater acoustic signals using piezoelectric interfaces and communicate by modulating the piezoelectric impedance. Our design introduces innovations that enable concurrent multiple access through circuit-based frequency tuning of backscatter modulation and a MAC that exploits the properties of PAB nodes to deliver higher network throughput and decode network collisions.

We built a prototype of our design using custom-designed, mechanically fabricated transducers and an end-to-end battery-free hardware implementation. We tested our nodes in large experimental water tanks at the MIT Sea Grant. Our results demonstrate single-link throughputs up to 3 kbps and power-up ranges up to 10 m. Finally, we show how our design can be used to measure acidity, temperature, and pressure. Looking ahead, the system can be used in ocean exploration, marine life sensing, and underwater climate change monitoring.