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German physicist Heinrich Hertz became one of the first pioneers in sonar technology when he experimented with radio waves and discovered they could be sent through some materials and reflected back by others. These first discoveries in 1887 helped open the door for scientists and researchers exploring how radio waves worked. By 1900, radio enthusiast Nikola Tesla saw that large objects could produce reflected radio waves and predicted they could help position and guide large ships.

Naval innovations developed rapidly during World War II for the military to see large objects from great distances and continued to evolve beyond military purposes. From handheld GPS navigation to helping the blind, here are some of the latest innovations in sonar technology and how they are impacting our world.

Naval Innovations

Lowrance released a series of Sonar and GPS combo devices to aid fishermen. These devices can help both professionals and sports enthusiasts looking for the best area to find a competitive catch. Humminbird Helix allows boaters to see a 240-ft section on either side of their boat, and the SwitchFire feature can differentiate between cover and fish. To get a better sense of the floor beneath them, Autochart will also create a detailed map of underwater structures that syncs in real time as boaters navigate the water.

Smart Interface Surfaces

Maxus Tech’s device Welle uses sonar to transform any surface into a smart, gesture-controlled interface. It claims to be the first piece of hardware that uses embedded sonar to detect human motion. The technology is similar to the concept behind self-driving cars in that it can recognize movements in its environment.

Welle acts as a universal remote control so you can use your finger to control everything from your kitchen lights to a central thermostat. Users can also assign a letter of the alphabet to Welle, like learning that writing out an X in the air turns on an appliance. The new device can help people streamline their lives but also assist those with mobility issues.

Sonar Sticks

Blind teenager Ben Underwood made waves in the media when he showed the world how he could play foosball, play video games and even walk through his neighborhood and grocery store using echolocation by clicking his mouth. Today there are sonar enabled walking sticks to help blind people navigate their environment. The SmartCane uses sonar to bounce signals back to its user and enable them to avoid large objects and even walk down busy streets.

Shark Detection

Australia’s Bondi Beach already uses shark deterrents like nets and air surveillance, but authorities have also tested a shark warning system by employing facial recognition technology underwater. A sonar emitter called Clever Buoy was attached to the ocean floor to help detect large, self-propelled objects that could indicate a shark is near. The technology would alert lifeguards to get people out of the water while the area was secured. Shark Mitigation Services founder Craig Anderson says the device has a 90 percent success rate and can save lives.

Accessible Ocean Floor Maps

Scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory gathered data from research cruises to help provide accessible ocean floor maps. They also helped contribute to Google Ocean’s latest map. The data relies on sonar devices to send a pulse through the water to detect the ocean floor’s depth. While anyone can observe the maps for their own research or enjoyment, the research also helped uncover a microplate in the Indian Ocean thought to arise when India’s subcontinent collided with Eurasia, creating the Himalayas.

Sonar was once largely used for underwater detection, but today’s innovations in sonar are working to improve people’s quality of life and bring the technology into our homes.