With a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, researchers from North Carolina State University are developing a cost-effective electronic monitoring system that will advance understanding of critical coastal ecosystems by allowing users to track water-quality data from these waters in real time.
“Our goal is to make it cheap and easy to monitor environmental conditions in the Chesapeake Bay, the sounds of North Carolina, and other coastal waterways,” says Dr. Alex Dean, associate professor of electronic and computer engineering (ECE) and primary investigator on the project. “Existing technology is costly to implement on a large scale, and is not easy to use. As a result, environmental officials currently do not have much access to real-time environmental data.”
The researchers, who are working on the project with the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center (CBEC), are developing inexpensive, wireless sensors that can be anchored to the sea bed, moored to buoys, or towed behind vessels to collect data. Dean explains that those sensors will send the data they collect to a centralized server that will make it available -essentially immediately - online. The sensors will collect a variety of data, including water temperature, salt levels in the water, and water clarity.
The data collection system should help track environmental health, and help scientists answer a number of ecological research questions. The researchers will adapt inexpensive, off-the-shelf sensors to withstand the aquatic environment. They are also developing and implementing new tools that ensure real-time processing of data and that make the sensors and data-processing equipment more energy efficient.
The research team will also be making all of its hardware and software designs open source, so that the system can be duplicated anywhere – from high school science programs to state environmental agencies.
The researchers will begin testing the sensory equipment in North Carolina waters in winter 2010. They hope to have a working model system in place in the Chesapeake in spring 2011, with plans to ultimately add a network in North Carolina.