Feature Story

The Internet of Everything Meets Water

by Anne Field

See how IoE technology is making waterways safer.

Researchers and engineers are applying Internet of Everything (IoE) technology to waterways, using it for everything from monitoring real-time flooding conditions to preventing contaminants from spilling into rivers. Here's a look at three such projects:                                                                     

Real-Time Flooding Reports

The thing about flooding is that it can happen in the blink of an eye. One moment it's raining hard and the next your street has become a river.

Samuel Cox, a British digital designer, started to ponder that last February, after learning about a government run hackathon aimed at finding solutions to flooding. He couldn't go--it was his birthday--but he watched a video of the event a few weeks later. As he looked at the various projects, a thought occurred to him.  All the data the hackathon solutions used was either predictive or described events that had already occurred. "There was nothing that said what was happening right now," he says.

With that insight, Cox started noodling around trying to see what he could create that would make sense of current water conditions. In the process, he learned that the current method for getting such measurements was done manually in many places. "People go out in boats to sticks planted in the water and note down the water level," he says.  "It was astounding to me. We sent people into space 50 years ago, but we send people out on boats to look at water levels."

What he came up with was a prototype for the Flood Beacon, a device aimed at collecting and sharing real-time data about flood conditions, including water level, GPS location and fast accelerations indicating a sudden rise in water.

Cox, who has had some talks with local governments about possible distribution, is a long way away from finding a manufacturer.  But here's how the system works. The device contains a variety of sensors able to detect water level, location and other data, and can be anchored in such high-risk flooding areas as rivers, lakes and floodplains, or allowed to float. It transmits live data through a cell phone network to a smartphone application or monitoring station, sending notifications when there's a risk of flooding, giving people more time to prepare or evacuate and alerting local governments they need to take action quickly. "You can provide information—before it's too late," he says. Designed to have low power requirements, it uses solar energy to stay charged. 

You can also see graphs charting water movement severity and other information in real-time. What's more, over time, the data can be collected and analyzed to get a better understanding of the conditions that indicate whether a waterway is on the verge of flooding.  

Keeping Sewage out of Waterways

Here's something you may not know. Sewer systems often get overwhelmed by major rainfall. Specifically, in hundreds of cities in the U.S. rainwater is collected in the same area as sewage. But if all that rain overwhelms sewers and waste water treatment plants, sewage ends up flowing directly into waterways. It means that "billions of gallons (of sewage) are discharged into rivers, lakes and other places every year," says Marcus Quigley, principle water engineer at Geosyntec, an Atlanta-based infrastructure engineering firm. That violates the Clean Water Act, in addition to being just plain disgusting.

To date, dealing with the problem has involved expensive short-term fixes, like building huge tanks in tunnels under a city where water gets dumped, then slowly pumped back and run through a treatment plant. Two years ago, Quigley‘s firm launched a wholly owned subsidiary aimed at addressing the problem.  Its OptiRTC platform monitors and controls in real-time civil infrastructure and environmental systems.

The platform takes weather forecasts and other information and integrates it into the algorithmic logic of the system. Weather forecasts are particularly important "so you know in advance what's going to happen with a high probability," says Quigley. In other words, the platform determines how much runoff is likely to occur and then takes action.

Quigley points to one such system recently put in operation.  Before, water runoff would flow into a downspout, ending up in a cistern located in the basement. In January, Quigley and his team added a sensor in the tank able to take a rainy weather forecast and then drain the tank in advance of the downpour.

In some cases, platforms will be able to take action automatically, thinking on their own. In others, there will be decision support systems providing intelligent feedback to people, who participate in the control process.  In any event, there is a dashboard that allows human beings to oversee what's happening, including alerts about issues deemed to be critical.

Quigley says he's running pilots in New York City and Omaha and plans to start in Milwaukee, Austin and Washington, DC, among other places.

Motorized Drifters Sensing Trouble

It's not easy monitoring water in deltas, estuaries or other complex channel networks.  You need to determine where the water is moving in cases of anything from levee failures to contaminant spills, as well as the presence of all-important phytoplankton and conditions such as water depth.  (The latter is critical for military maneuvers). Of course, sensors can provide useful data. But in a large and complex network of, say, levees, you need a lot of them.

Enter the Floating Sensor Network project underway at the University of California at Berkeley, working with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and the California Department of Water Resources. Over the past few years, researchers have developed and refined a platform with a fleet of 100 motorized drifters that can move in the water. Sensors measure data in real-time, transmitting it through a cell phone network or dedicated radios. The result: water maps that show the movement of water, the presence of contaminants and whether polluted water is mixing with fresh H2O, among other things. In cases of sudden potentially catastrophic events, like contaminant spills, the fleet can be deployed quickly to see what damage has been done.

So far, the project has worked with a number of agencies, including the French government, to measure water movement in the Bordeaux region, and the US Geological Survey, to monitor tidal flows in the Liberty Island wetland in San Francisco; the information will be used for large-scale wetland restoration.   "You can add any sensor you want to the platform," says Alexandre Bayen, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Berkeley. "Then the device floats and you see what's happening live on the screen."

The upshot: a mini-armada of sensors helping to increase the safety of waterways.         


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