A High-Speed Optical Modem Communication System for CORK Seafloor Observatories

Friday, 19 December 2014
Maurice Tivey, Norman Farr, Jonathan Ware, Clifford Pontbriand and Leo-Paul Pelletier, Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst, Woods Hole, MA, United States
High-speed communications underwater is an increasing requirement for data intensive seafloor sensors. Acoustic modems provide dependable long-range communications underwater, but data rates are limited to <57Kbps. Free-water optical modems (OMs) offer high data rate, 10Mbps communications over a range of 200 m – a distance for ROVs, AUVs or wire-lowered packages to communicate without the need to directly plug-in or retrieve the instrument. Over the past 4 years, we have demonstrated the functionality and utility of OM technology using a CORK borehole observatory as a test case. A CORK represents all of the basic components required for a seafloor observatory: a stable environment for long-term continuous measurements of earth and ocean phenomena, access to a unique environment below the seafloor and a standard communication interface.

The CORK-OM features a high-bandwidth, low-latency optical system based on LED emitters and PMT receivers and an acoustic command and control system. OM tests established a communication link from 20 to 200 meters range at rates of 1, 5 and 10 Mbps with no bit errors. The seafloor OM was plugged into the CORK’s existing underwater wet mateable connector and provided additional power to the CORK to boost the data rate to 1 Hz from the normal 1 minute sample period. To communicate with the seafloor CORK-OM, a number of different modalities were used. One method was an OM mounted to a CTD frame on a lowered wire from a ship with an SDSL link over the conducting wire. Other methods utilized OMs mounted to both ROV Jason and submersible Alvin.

We deployed OMs at two CORKs in 2012 in the northeast pacific at sites 857D and 1025C. The CORKs were visited in 2013 by a vessel of opportunity to download data and were put into sleep mode. The CORKs were revisited in 2014, woken up and successfully interrogated for data. ALVIN retrieved the CORK-OMs for corrosion, biofouling and battery performance assessment. We also performed tests of a next generation OM using a deployed seafloor modem and AUV Sentry. A complete lambertian optical field was quantitatively mapped by Sentry and test data was successfully downloaded from 20 to 150 m slant range. The AUV modality demonstrates the capability of ‘data-mule’ operations to autonomously recover data from a seafloor observatory with minimal human intervention.