Student innovation at Rensselaer transmits data and power wirelessly through submarine hulls

Mar 07, 2011
Steel walls are no match for Tristan Lawry. The doctoral student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed and demonstrated an innovative new system that uses ultrasound to simultaneously transmit large quantities of data and power wirelessly through thick metal walls, like the hulls of ships and submarines. Credit: Rensselaer/Kris Qua

Steel walls are no match for Tristan Lawry. The doctoral student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has developed and demonstrated an innovative new system that uses ultrasound to simultaneously transmit large quantities of data and power wirelessly through thick metal walls, like the hulls of ships and submarines.

Lawry, a student in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer, is one of three finalists for the 2011 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize. A public ceremony announcing this year's winner will be held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9 in the auditorium of the Rensselaer Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Lawry's project is titled "A High-Performance System for of and Data Through Solid Metallic Enclosures," and his faculty adviser is Gary Saulnier, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering at Rensselaer.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

In our increasingly tetherless world, wires have been all but replaced by more convenient wireless connections in homes and offices – everything from phones and accessing the Internet to keyboards and printers. In the area of defense, a progression from wired to wireless systems presents an opportunity to improve the safety of naval vessels. Presently, to install critical safety sensors on the exterior of ships and submarines, the U.S. Navy is forced to drill holes in the hull through which cables for data and power transmission are run. Each hole increases the risk of potentially serious issues, including leaks and structural failure. Additionally, installing these sensors on commissioned vessels requires the use of a drydock or cofferdam, which can take months and cost millions of dollars.

Lawry's invention solves this problem. Unlike conventional electromagnetic wireless systems, which are ineffective at transmitting power and data through vessel hulls because of the "Faraday cage" shielding effects they present, his patent-pending system uses – high-frequency acoustic waves –to easily propagate signals through thick metals and other solids. Piezoelectric transducers are used to convert electrical signals into acoustic signals and vice versa, allowing his system to form wireless electrical bridges across these barriers. Lawry's clever design features separate non-interfering ultrasonic channels for independent data and power transmission.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

With this new system, Lawry has demonstrated the simultaneous, continuous delivery of 50 watts of power and 12.4 megabytes per second (Mbps) of data through a 2.5-inch-thick solid steel block in real time. These results far surpass all known previously published systems capable of simultaneous data and power transmission through metal. With only minor modifications, Lawry said he's confident his design will have the capacity to support much higher power levels and data rates. His invention uses a powerful communication technology that allows the transmission system to adapt to non-ideal conditions and mechanical variations over time. This is critical for ensuring successful operation of the system in real-world conditions outside of a controlled laboratory environment.

Lawry's complex combination of electronic and acoustic hardware, signal generation and detection technology, and power generation and collection equipment shares many characteristics with a state-of-the-art communications system such as a cellular phone. Using the three main building blocks of electrical engineering – power, communications, and computing – Lawry has developed a system that can communicate through a thick metal wall without the need for a battery or any supplemental power source. This means sensors on the outer hull of submarines can be made to work with systems on the other side of the wall for many years without the need for human intervention.

In addition to the hulls of ships and submarines, Lawry said his wireless data and power system could benefit many other applications where it is necessary or advantageous to continually power and monitor sensor networks in isolated environments. For example, his system could be used to power and communicate with sensors in nuclear reactors, chemical processing equipment, oil drilling equipment and pipelines, armored vehicles, un-manned underwater deep-sea exploration vehicles, or even space shuttles and satellites.

When not in the lab, Lawry enjoys staying active by playing soccer, hockey, and an exciting round of paintball. At Rensselaer, the Shrewsbury, Vt., native has founded and organized a community outreach program with the Eta Kappa Nu honor society to deliver entertaining science and engineering presentations to local elementary and high school students. Lawry was recently married. His wife, Allison, has provided unwavering support and inspiration throughout his time as a student at Rensselaer. Lawry's mother, a kindergarten teacher back home in Vermont, and his twin older brothers are rooting for him to win the 2011 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize.

Lawry received dual bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering and computer and systems engineering, as well as his master's degree in electrical engineering, from Rensselaer and has maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average over his eight years at the Institute. He won the Rensselaer Founders Award of Excellence in 2009, the Rensselaer Academic Award of Excellence in 2007, and expects to complete his doctorate and graduate this May.

Explore further: LiquidPiston unveils quiet X Mini engine prototype

More information: For more information on the ceremony visit: http://www.eng.rpi.edu/lemelson/

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study pushes the button on intuitive design

Sep 08, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A Queensland University of Technology researcher is looking for volunteers to take part in a study aimed at making contemporary appliances such as dvd players and mobile phones more usable for the elderly.

Securing America's power grid

Jun 27, 2006

Terrorists attack Colombia's electrical grid hundreds of times a year. What's to stop attacks on America's power lines? An Iowa State University research team led by Arun Somani, chair and Jerry R. Junkins professor of electrical ...

Student Develops First Polarized LED

Mar 03, 2008

In recent years, light emitting diodes (LEDs) have begun to change the way we see the world. Now, a Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student has developed a new type of LED that could allow for their widespread ...

$100 M partnership to advance nanotech

May 12, 2006

A $100 million partnership has been made to create what collaborators consider will be the world's most powerful university-based supercomputing center.

Wireless Nanotech Sensors Could Monitor Power Systems 24/7

Oct 24, 2006

As electric power this week returned to the last of the homes and businesses in Western New York affected by the devastating October snowstorm, researchers at the University at Buffalo were discussing how tiny, nanoscale ...

Recommended for you

LiquidPiston unveils quiet X Mini engine prototype

9 hours ago

LiquidPiston has a new X Mini engine which is a small 70 cubic centimeter gasoline powered "prototype. This is a quiet, four-stroke engine with near-zero vibration. The company said it can bring improvements ...

Novel robotic walker helps patients regain natural gait

14 hours ago

Survivors of stroke or other neurological conditions such as spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and Parkinson's disease often struggle with mobility. To regain their motor functions, these patients ...

Tomorrow's degradable electronics

Nov 20, 2014

When the FM frequencies are removed in Norway in 2017, all old-fashioned radios will become obsolete, leaving the biggest collection of redundant electronics ever seen – a mountain of waste weighing something ...

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ViktorF
not rated yet Mar 07, 2011
Patent-pending. I imagine the US Gov't already has all of those plans and are working on them already. Since, as we know, Patents don't apply to the Gov't.
loboy
not rated yet Mar 07, 2011
Although I am not an electrical engineer, I would have to say this is not truly "wireless". The steel hull is the "wire". I would hope there is signal encryption between the piezoelectric sensors. If not, it would be very simple to acoustically couple and tap the signal. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

Also, I am wondering about high power levels increasing the temperature of the hull and changing the submarine's thermal signature.
J-n
not rated yet Mar 07, 2011
Although I am not an electrical engineer, I would have to say this is not truly "wireless". The steel hull is the "wire".


I am not an engineer myself, and my understanding is pretty limited.. but by this definition would then the Antenna on your Wireless network interface card, and the antenna on your wireless phone also be considered wires?
loboy
not rated yet Mar 07, 2011
@J-n

Antennas are radiating wires. Wifi and cellular phones use electromagnetic radiation, i.e. radio waves, not acoustic waves. What is presented here are acoustic vibrations at ultrasonic frequencies. Ultrasonic waves are vibrating within the hull, thus the hull is the medium or "wire" through which these waves are transmitted.

My definition for a truly wireless device would be one employing electromagnetic radiation.
loboy
not rated yet Mar 07, 2011
@J-n

Antennas are radiating wires. Wifi and cellular phones use electromagnetic radiation, i.e. radio waves, not acoustic waves. What is presented here are acoustic vibrations at ultrasonic frequencies. Ultrasonic waves are vibrating within the hull, thus the hull is the medium or "wire" through which these waves are transmitted. Just like two paper cups on a taught string.

My definition for a truly wireless device would be one employing electromagnetic radiation. My argument is just dull semantics.
J-n
not rated yet Mar 08, 2011
Well then, with this explanation, your argument (while semantic) is completely understood. I can, then, definitely agree with you.

This does seem to be less of a wireless system than advertised.
Cal_Sailor
not rated yet Mar 08, 2011
Wouldn't this create a lot of noise that could pinpoint the vessel's location? Granted, ultra-sound doesn't travel far in water but it does travel. Also, how will this affect whales and dolphins? Could the added noise interfere with their habits?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.