If you aren't already reading this on your smartphone, take it out now. Imagine you and thousands of other people flinging your beloved gadgets into the depths of the nearest ocean. But rather than sinking to some watery demise, they swim off together like a school of electronic fish.
These submariner smartphones then get to work, sending images to the surface. With onboard sensors, they capture audio, temperature readings, even the chemical composition of the water and the various substances they encounter as they resolutely pull together something we don’t have—a detailed view of the 70 percent of the world we are largely ignorant of, our oceans.
The only fiction in that scenario is finding people willing to part with their phones.
The overarching concept—a network of connected devices swimming around the oceans sending back all kinds of data—is real. It is being realized by MIT PhD candidate Sampriti Bhattacharyya, 28, founder and CEO of underwater smart drone startup Hydroswarm.
The word ‘drone’ doesn’t do justice to Bhattacharyya’s vision. She is preparing to defend her thesis in mechanical engineering and robotics, and connection is at the core of how this polymath engineer thinks and designs. She describes her product as an underwater Internet of Things. An enormous flotilla of seaworthy, connected, learning machines that will enable new breakthroughs, new economies, and new opportunities, and will offers the chance to connect our entire globe—land, air, and sea—in a data-driven, digital continuum.
“That’s the future, right?” she says. “There has to be this unfolding of a collection of things that are all connected, where the data that we can gather all gets stitched together to create this very intense, high-fidelity structure that represents our world.” Connection is at the core of how this polymath engineer thinks, and how she designs.
It starts with connecting the technologies available to build her rotund drones: the sensors, the compute she can leverage, and the power sources to drive it. Many of these building blocks are commercially available either off the shelf or semi-customizable, so she can focus her development efforts on the magic sauce that makes her drone unique.
“It has to make sense, the math has to work,” Bhattacharyya says. “I can come up with an idea, but if there is a mismatch with the technologies, if it becomes just another high-concept, high-cost machine, then that is missing the mark for me. Do the economics make sense? Can I build hundreds or thousands of these? How can I, together with technology partners, push all of it—the compute, the security, and the efficiency—forward? It takes an ecosystem to make something big happen.”
Another connection is with the ocean environment in which these machines will operate. Bhattacharyya doesn’t want them to just survive the harsh deap-sea conditions but to move in harmony with the creatures, plants, and algae that exist there. “Whatever I design has to blend in,” she says. “It’s the negative aspect of disruptive technology that I am staying away from. You need to take responsibility as a technologist. That’s why my design has no propellers; it’s smooth to minimize noise disruption. If you are a fish, thousands of spinning propellers is no fun.”
Finally, there is the connection to people who might make use of Bhattacharrya’s underwater ecosystem. She wants the intelligence gathered from her ocean data farm to enable others to develop better aquaculture, tap into clean geothermal energy, and formulate new drugs. The underwater micro drones will gather data we’ve never before had access to and enable new insights to help us better understand the place where life first formed.
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