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Thoughts From Engineers: All Sensors (and Eyes) on the Water

Chris Maeder on May 11, 2021 - in Articles, Column

The city of Virginia Beach, Va., was recognized in November 2020 with a Digital Cities award for the municipality’s adoption of StormSense, a multi-award-winning initiative that harnesses data streamed from a network of smart sensors and uses the resulting analytics in city-specific applications. Stationed along waterways and bridges, these Internet of Things (IoT) sensors analyze rain, storm and tidal data in real-time for purposes of hydrodynamic model development, forecasting, city resilience planning and emergency alerts, among other uses.

Developed by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) with a Smart City Technologies grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology Global City Team Challenge, the StormSense project has already delivered on the program’s mission to foster “replicable, scalable and sustainable smart city solutions.” The project is collaborative in design; several coastal cities in Virginia have implemented some or all components of the system.

Ultimately, StormSense’s success represents an important case study showcasing the workability of specific smart city applications that use IoT innovations and other cost-effective technologies to monitor environmental conditions, collect important data for planning purposes and communicate alerts—of life-saving consequence—to city residents.

Other parts of the country also are trying out networks of IoT sensors to monitor flood risk. These are largely experimental efforts, but as IoT technology, data processing and cloud-storage capabilities improve, the dissemination of data analytics to a wider audience becomes increasingly more feasible and cost-effective.

Boosting a City’s Floodproofing Game

As a result of more-intense and frequent rain events, communities habitually find themselves in reactive mode when it comes to flood preparedness. Recent trends in storm events bear little resemblance to historic patterns, which means municipalities are at a disadvantage in terms of planning for future events. As communities rush to protect lives and property, new benchmarks—or at least more-current versions—are needed, which is what StormSense aims to provide.

The project’s official website (www.vims.edu/people/loftis_jd/StormSense/index.php) outlines the basic mechanics and design. A network of approximately 40 water-level sensors supplied by VIMS at William & Mary University is combined with sensors used by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Readings from this assortment of IoT sensors, collecting data on air pressure, rainfall, water levels and other metrics, transmit every 6 minutes via Long Range Wi-Fi to the StormSense cloud.

Modeling analyses generate inundation forecasts that become accessible to emergency managers as well as neighborhoods, larger communities and private citizens via several web platforms. The website states the following overarching goal: “… to enhance emergency preparedness for inundation-related threats by advancing research to help better predict flooding resulting from storm surge, rain and tides.”

StormSense’s system is unique in the degree to which it has established broad, city-based applications; it’s designed to integrate with the delivery of other municipal services. The forecasts show up as smartphone notifications and can be used to fortify coastal waterfronts against potential storm damage. There’s a distinct citizen-centric and citizen-driven component to all this as well: Residents in Virginia Beach actively participated in the calibration of the initial inundation model, ground-truthing the model’s predictions against observable street-level flooding.

Networks of IoT Sensors Across the Country

Environmental sensors have been used for monitoring purposes for years, but the development of networks that do more than simply transmit numbers via electrical signal is a more-recent phenomenon. Experimental projects of varying scale can be found throughout the country, from Texas to Iowa to the town of Cary, N.C.

The Lower Colorado River Authority, for example, installed some 275 sensors on the Lower Colorado River basin in Texas about 20 years ago, creating a system known as Hydromet that uploads stream flow, river stage, rainfall amounts and other metrics regularly to a public website. The agency is trying to transition to more cost-effective sensors as well as create a more user-friendly platform permitting broader dissemination of data analytics via smart devices and other web applications.

The Iowa Flood Information System is described as a “one-stop web-platform” designed to allow anyone from citizens to emergency responders to sign-up for mobile alerts and access real-time data on water levels and flood risk from a network of approximately 250 sensors. The town of Cary streams data collected from strategically placed water-level sensors and rain gauges to Microsoft’s Azure Cloud, integrating it with the town’s existing business and administrative systems, effectively creating a communitywide flood-alert system.

How Smart Applications Get the “Green Light”

In a report, “How National Governments Can Help Smart Cities Succeed,” published by the Center for Data Innovation in 2017, Joshua New stresses the need for federal support of all aspects of smart city growth, from helping pioneering cities minimize financial risks to oversight of demonstration projects to standardization of smart methodologies and technologies.

These minimum requirements, as described by New, are present— or some version of them—in The American Jobs Plan released by the White House on March 31, 2021. President Biden’s vision, which includes “revitalizing America’s digital infrastructure” and building resilience into our country’s highways, cities and structures, comes at a steep price. Rumblings on Capitol Hill suggest the way forward will be tough. But the administration’s objectives, at least in theory, are promising. Here’s to future initiatives that blend the capabilities of emerging technologies with the public’s interest in information, safety and livable (and smart) cities.

Chris Maeder

About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: chris.maeder@civilgeo.com.

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