New technology = smarter rivers: Wireless sensor can supply key data immediately

February 21, 2014

AIKEN — Clemson University ecologist Gene Eidson hopes soon to be able to monitor from his computer screen water conditions at any point along the Savannah River as it meanders hundreds of miles from Upstate South Carolina to Jasper County.

He’s the lead researcher on the Intelligent River project, which recently created a wireless sensor that can monitor and transmit environmental information, and the corresponding software to make the data available online, in real time.


Photo by Brad Nettles

Research specialist Chris Bellamy explains monitoring technology currently used on a farm at Clemson’s Edisto Research Education Center in Blackville. Soon the farm will convert to wireless technology.


Intelligent River Project

Clemson University researchers are using environmental monitoring technology from the Intelligent River project to monitor storm water conditions in Aiken, SC.

Clemson University researchers are using environmental monitoring technology from the Intelligent River project to monitor storm water conditions in Aiken, SC.


Photo by Brad Nettles

The Mote stack and the software are going to revolutionize the way we monitor the environment. – Clemson ecologist Gene Eidson

At roughly the size of a Rubik’s cube, the sensor, called a “Mote stack,” can collect and transmit myriad data, including temperature, dissolved oxygen and the presence of foreign particles.

“The Mote stack and the software are going to revolutionize the way we monitor the environment,” Eidson said.

Clemson already has patented the sensors, software and the buoy system that will hold them in the water. And it’s meeting with companies now to explore licensing agreements for producing them commercially.

Researchers currently monitor about 120 miles of the river with an older, slower type of technology, Eidson said. But he hopes that within about two years, the university will replace the older technology with the new wireless model, and will cover the entire expanse of the river. “Our goal, as a team, is to create the first automated river.”

The marriage of technology and the natural world allows researchers to communicate with the river, Eidson said. “In reality, you’re giving the environment a voice.”

And the wireless monitoring techniques potentially are so useful that researchers already are exploring other uses for them including: an Intelligent Farm, where farmers might look to their computer screens to learn which sections of their fields need tending; and an Intelligent Brick, which could monitor the internal conditions of a building.

When the systems are up and running, Eidson said, some of the data will be available free to the public and some will be available only to subscribers.

Brian Sheehan, director of sustainability for the city of Charleston, said a team from Charleston, including employees from the planning and public service departments and members of the city’s Green Committee, plans to meet with Eidson later this month to learn more about the technology. A lot of cities are working with companies that supply environmental data, he said. But he likes the idea of working with a public university because it might be more open with the data it collects, he said.

Sheehan said the city hasn’t made any commitment to Clemson or any other company for environmental data. But real-time monitoring seems to be “the wave of the future,” he said. “There’s no end to the usefulness you could get from that kind of system.”

Filling the canyon

The technology already is fully operational monitoring the city of Aiken’s iconic green parkways.

A hard rain in Aiken used to force massive amounts of stormwater contaminated with oil, dirt, fertilizer, litter and animal waste through one large pipe that was 10 feet in diameter. The water gushed out with such force it at times shot 80 feet through the air before hitting the ground, Eidson said.

Over the past few decades, it carved a canyon 70 feet deep in the Hitchcock Woods. The contaminated stormwater flowed into the Sand River and on to the Savannah River.

Eidson, who’s from the Aiken area, and city leaders worked together on a $3.3 million project to both improve the city’s drainage systems and install wireless sensors from the Intelligent River project along the parkways to continuously monitor them. “This whole parkway is wireless,” he said.

With more porous surfaces on portions of the roads along the parkways and water- collecting indentations called “rain gardens” and “bioswales” in them, much less stormwater drains into the rivers. And the researchers can keep an eye on conditions online, Eidson said.

One day earlier this month, Clemson research specialist Chris Bellamy stood on a spot on the parkway and accessed the conditions of the ground beneath his feet from his android phone.

Eidson said years down the road, the canyon likely will fill in again.

Farms and Bricks

Bellamy spends much of his time on an experimental farm at Clemson’s Edisto Research Education Center in Blackville, about 30 miles outside of Aiken. Researchers there already monitor environmental factors at several spots. But the technology they use requires them to manually download the data. Bellamy hopes soon to begin using some of the wireless technology from the Intelligent River project. “If we had that, you could see this on your computer in Charleston,” he said.

The technology has the potential to give farmers information that would enable them to use water and pesticides more efficiently, he said. The result could be better managed, more cost-effective farms.

Eidson said researchers, as a test, also have made a brick with a Mote stack inside and placed it in the air passage of building. He thinks that one day Intelligent Bricks could monitor buildings, including giving early warnings of termites.

He also said systems could be set up to notify users by phone, email or twitter if something was environmentally out of line. “One day this might call you up and tell you the conditions of the Charleston Harbor,” Eidson said. “It opens a world we have never had before. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have been having this conversation.”

Originally posted 2011-04-25 05:14:50.

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