As anyone who has driven through Norfolk during a strong rain and a high tide knows, the complications of living in a coastal community in the age of increasing sea level rise is not some far-off problem: it’s a regular reality.
We call it “nuisance flooding,” which almost makes it sound charming, but it is anything but charming; after a weather event like Hurricane Matthew, insurance claims for totaled cars and damaged houses pour into insurance companies. Even if it isn’t your car or home, we all suffer when insurance rates for our areas rise.
Norfolk can, and will, do a better job of alerting the public to where flooding is happening, in real time, and even predicting it, block-by-block, before it happens. Wouldn’t you love a real time map that shows you the safest way home — or to the grocery store, or the hospital — during flooding?
This will take a whole lot of sensors collecting data at various points in the city, and transmitting that data to the cloud. Up to now, the system costs have been prohibitive. Enter the shoe-string mentality — and pure ingenuity — of local makers Beau Turner and Jim Gray, who have developed a water level sensor system that is currently in its testing phase, but which shows a great deal of potential.
Turner is the CEO and creative director of 757 Makerspace Community Workshop and Coworking Studios, while Gray, a multi-disciplinary engineer, is president and CEO Gray8 LLC, a local design firm with an emphasis on interactive technologies. I recently met with Turner and Gray on The Hague Bridge to learn more about their concept.
The unit attaches out-of-plain-sight on the side of the bridge, where it uses ultrasound to measure water levels. It transmits this information to a nearby building, which then beams it to Turner and Gray’s Cloud-based IoT platform.
The City of Norfolk has put in an initial order of six units. I expect this technology to eventually spread throughout Norfolk and coastal Hampton Roads, ultimately producing a smart region web that facilitates a road-by-road water level map that saves Norfolk residents hundreds of totaled cars over the years — and many more of us a few dollars on our insurance premiums.
I followed up with Turner and Gray via email to better understand some of the specifics.
AltDaily: How does the technology work? What are the parts?
Turner and Gray: The water level monitoring system (WLMS) measures the depth of collected water – whether it is an existing body of water or flood waters covering streets in neighborhoods. It generates a stream of useful flood data that begins with a sensor node and ends with the cloud platform.
The three (3) main parts of the system are:
- Water Level Sensor node – The sensor node measures and reports the distance from the sensor to the surface of the water. It gathers this data at six-minute intervals and wirelessly transmits it to a “gateway.” The gateway takes information from the sensor notes and translates it into information that can be sent to the cloud and monitored by people who are interested. The connection between the sensors and the gateway can be considered a private network.
- Gateway – The gateway acts as a gate or a bridge to the cloud. It gathers data from one or more sensor nodes, formats and combines the data, then forwards it to the cloud platform. The connection from the gateway can be considered a public network, thus the gateway bridges the gap between the private and public networks. The gateway also establishes a wireless “zone” whose range can be approx. 1.2 miles (2 km) on average. Sensors within this zone are able to communicate with that zones gateway.
- Cloud Platform – The cloud platform collects data from multiple gateways. It translates, analyzes and stores the sensor data. It also provides the functionality for early warning detection and notification. Finally, the cloud platform provides application program interface (API) which is used by devices and other systems to access the data.
How will this help work systemically to be predictive of flooding?
The WLMS sensors are small enough and cheap enough to be easily placed throughout the city. Not only can the sensors monitor levels for large bodies of water, but the sensors can be placed on streetlight poles and positioned to monitor pockets of neighborhood flooding.
This flexibility means the system can monitor flooding in areas that were previously impossible to track, such as streets or intersections around the city that affect individual neighborhoods. Placing many sensors in sensitive areas around the city provides much more precise and real time physical measurements than does the current method – extrapolated predictions modeled on one sensor at Sewell’s Point.
The WLMS can notify the city and individual citizens of rising waters levels in their neighborhood in near real time. They can preemptively move their cars, avoid driving into certain areas, bring in their trash cans, or prepare to move their furniture or even evacuate.
The city can use the data as it grows to develop predictive models that warn citizens of the possible flood events prior to their occurrence. The sooner citizens can be warned, the least likely that damage will occur, and the lesser the burden on city emergency and rescue services.
How many of these would Norfolk ideally have?
This is hard question to answer but a guesstimate is that the City of Norfolk could have hundreds of these cost-effective sensors.
The wireless infrastructure is cost-effective enough for individual citizens to put a personal water level sensor on their property, so there could potentially be many more sensors and data points out there than what the city has placed.
What drives you all to be a part of this?
As an engineer, I always strive to develop the “killer” product or to solve the tough problem. Sea level rise is without doubt a very tough problem. While it will take a long time to address root cause issues and even longer to reduce their effects, we can use existing technology now to avoid some of the nefarious effects, by either predicting the occurrence or at least being able to quickly warn citizens of flooding so they can take appropriate action.
What’s next? How does this project grow?
If the project is successful, the base system will expand to include additional water level sensors and gateways. A logical next step would be to establish a wireless zone in the lesser supported neighborhoods of Norfolk. Our vision is to provide a comprehensive flood notification service for citizens and neighborhoods that previously where ignored.
How does this fit within larger smart city philosophies?
A truly smart city is also a green city. While the focus of the WLMS system is water level monitoring, the water level sensor itself is just the beginning. With the establishment of open wireless zones that blanket the city, citizens and local organizations will have the ability to add other sensors to detect risks in the environment. Air quality sensors, particulate sensors and CO2 detectors can easily be placed on the network. Sensors that monitor parking garage capacity or open parking spots can use this network. Trash levels of public garbage cans can be monitored, moisture levels of plants maintained by the city can be monitored. The possibilities are limitless.
What is the connection with the City of Norfolk? It’s a contract for an initial 6 units, yes? Talk of expanding from there?
This pilot project is funded through the City of Norfolk with downstream funding provided by AmeriCorp. If we are successful, we hope the city, perhaps through its Resiliency Office, will find additional funding for expansion. We believe that monitoring water levels, especially for those who live in vulnerable neighborhoods, is tightly aligned with the city’s mission of Resiliency.
We will keep you posted here at AltDaily as this testing progresses. Norfolk should be known not just as one of the cities with the biggest sea level rise problems, but also as a city with many of the sea level rise solutions.