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Talking Underwater
June 29, 2015   
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A Polish scientist who is an avid scuba diver has built a device that enables people to talk underwater.

The device is called a bionic sonar and was constructed by researchers led by Łukasz Nowak, Ph.D., from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Fundamental Technological Research in Warsaw.

Nowak started working on the invention encouraged by his own experience as a diver. The device is intended to enable people to communicate freely underwater—without using complicated electronics. The device is modeled after mechanisms seen in nature. When they were preparing to build the device, Nowak and his research team from the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research spent time watching communication between dolphins and between seals from a seal sanctuary in the Polish seaside town of Hel and at research centers in Denmark.

“I scrutinized these marine mammals, which in many respects resemble people. I asked myself why they can communicate underwater, while people can’t,” says Nowak. “I started to look for solutions in makeshift conditions. I would build acoustic transmission systems using PVC pipes and everything I had on hand.”

Dolphins emit sounds of different frequencies in the water. They can generate acoustic waves that propagate through their bodies and then smoothly penetrate the water as signals used for communication. People cannot talk underwater because the sound from the air does not transfer to the water.

Previously divers were only able to communicate with one another during underwater expeditions through systems using cables or ultrasonic transmission systems. They needed to use expensive electronic equipment and full face masks for this. With Nowak’s invention, it is enough for a diver to take his breathing apparatus out of his mouth and speak into the device developed by the scientists.

The demonstration version of the device makes it possible to talk over a distance of more than 20 meters. The invention will be useful not only for those working underwater and diving enthusiasts. The bionic sonar may also come in handy for locating objects, for example unmanned underwater vehicles.

In the project, the researchers from the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research have teamed up with scientists from the Medical University of Gdańsk and the University of Gdańsk.

Sounds can be divided into structural and aerodynamic varieties. The former arise in vibrating solids, for example when someone bangs their fist on a table. The latter are caused by vibrations of the air when we talk. Underwater, people are only able to hear structural sounds. For a voice to be audible underwater, it is necessary to transform the sound of the air passing through our lips into the vibrations of a solid body. The scientists have managed to develop a system that turns aerodynamic sounds into structural sounds that propagate in water.

Work on a demonstrator was carried out as part of the Foundation for Polish Science’s Inter program, which was completed in December last year. Now a prototype of the device will be created using funds available under the Impulse program. As part of this program, the Foundation for Polish Science also offers training programs and grants for those interested in going commercial with their research results.

Karolina Olszewska
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