Modern naval fleets rely on radio frequency (RF) tactical data networks to facilitate communications between vessels while at sea. If these networks are knocked out during a combat operation, it can effectively cripple a fleet’s ability to coordinate strategic movements and respond to incoming threats.
That’s why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—an organization that played a vital role in the early history of the Internet—is developing portable fiber-optic networks that could be used to restore communications in contested areas. The cheekily-named Tactical Undersea Network Architecture (TUNA) program recently completed its first phase of research and development, and will soon enter the prototype testing phase on the open ocean.
TUNA networks consist of a series of buoys connected by a backbone of hair-thin optical fibers designed to survive harsh ocean conditions for at least 30 days. Each buoy contains a power generator and RF transmitter to wirelessly relay communications to nearby ships and planes. The buoys can be distributed either by ships or support aircraft in the area.
With a lifespan of approximately one month, a TUNA network could be deployed during combat operations to give engineers the necessary time to restore primary communications. Once primary networks are restored, the buoy nodes can be recovered and reused later with new fiber optic connections.
Among the many design challenges DARPA has faced in the development of TUNA, the most significant has been figuring out a way to provide reliable power to the network at sea. After considering a number of different design options, the team ultimately settled on a system that harnesses the movement of waves to generate electricity.
Although TUNA was designed for military applications, similar technology could be used by civilians to bring broadband Internet to remote regions of the world as well. Temporary fiber-optic networks could be very valuable in coordinating disaster relief efforts, for example.
To see how TUNA network nodes generate power with wave energy, check out the video below from the University of Washington’s applied physics laboratory!