River Radar

New platforms use breakthrough sensor technology to monitor the Hudson’s waters

John Cronin, the director and chief executive officer of the Beacon Institute, was enjoying a Renegades game with his son last August when rain began pummeling Dutchess Stadium. The umpires ordered both teams to their dugouts, and minutes later the public address announcer informed the crowd that play would resume in half an hour. The fans around him groaned in exasperation, but Cronin could only marvel at how accurately officials could predict the storm’s passing. “There were 4,000 people in the stadium, and no one thought that was amazing,” he says incredulously.

More than anyone else at that baseball game, Cronin could appreciate the weather report’s precision. At the time, the Beacon Institute was in the process of creating a groundbreaking system that will allow scientists to forecast the cloudiness or salinity of the Hudson River’s water, just as a meteorologist might predict the next day’s temperature.

This past summer, Cronin and his colleagues took a major step toward that goal when they deployed the first REON (River and Estuary Observatory Network) sensor platform just to the north of Dennings Point near Beacon. The state-of-the-art sensors on the 3,000-pound, eight-by-22-foot pilot platform can read air temperature, barometric pressure, and wind direction, flow, and speed; water depth, temperature, direction, salinity, and flow rate; and oxygen, particle, and algae levels. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these solar-powered sensors eventually will be found up and down the Hudson, according to Institute estimates. IBM, which is partnering with the Institute on the project, will provide a stream-computing system to process and display the sensors’ output. Together, the two organizations hope to create a network that can alert scientists minute-by-minute to biological, chemical, and physical changes in the river. “An ecosystem like the Hudson River is very dramatic,” Cronin says. “Real-time monitoring gives us information as dynamic as that ecosystem.”

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For Valley residents, the most important measurements are likely to be those indicating the degree of pollution in the river. “I could get on a BlackBerry right now, and in 10 strokes I could tell you the humidity in New Delhi, India,” Cronin says. “But no one can tell you what, if any, of the drinking water in the Hudson is contaminated.” Previous technology required days or weeks to test water for contaminants, says Liesl Hotaling, the Institute’s chief education officer. Using the new sensors, scientists can obtain data about the river in real time.

Impressive as they may be, the first platforms can only cover specific, fixed locations because they’re anchored in one spot. To address that problem, James Bonner, the sensor network’s director of research, is developing platforms capable of moving freely through the water on their own accord. The Institute hopes to have prototypes ready in two to three years. “We embrace the challenge of covering the entire watershed,” Bonner says.

Years from now, Cronin hopes the platforms will be inexpensive enough to produce en masse, so that they can be used as early warning systems for drinking water in the poorest parts of the world.

“Innovations made here in the Valley,” he says, “will have a worldwide impact.” For now, though, Cronin and the Institute will continue to focus on what’s brewing beneath the Hudson’s surface.


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