Last month, a robotic armada splashed into the waters of the Sacramento River. The fleet, 100-strong and equipped with powerful sensors and tiny propellers, began its journey downstream not to take over the world, but to map the flow of one of California’s largest waterways.
The future of water monitoring may also have been bobbing down current that day. Water sampling remains a laborious, expensive, and not terribly accurate affair. Despite vast improvements in detection abilities, our methods of collecting samples have hardly changed: Go to a site, scoop, and test, sometimes by hand. With thousands of miles of rivers, or an expansive ocean, that’s not only impractical and costly, it’s sometimes impossible.
Enter the robots. The University of California, Berkeley has built a fleet of more than a hundred robots, powered by open-source software and smartphone hardware. This “Floating Sensor Network” heads downriver detecting current, salinity, temperature and other variables revealing a dynamic real-time flowing “map” of the region’s water systems. These “drifters” stay in touch using a combination of cellular phone networks, short-range wireless radio, and GPS, while about half are outfitted with propellers to help avoid obstacles or reach certain areas.
The test was the largest deployment to date of the Floating Sensor Network. The nascent fleet that is slated to become a rapid-deployment tool to map how water flows during floods, levee breaches, and contaminant spills. In the meantime, it’s busy creating massively detailed hydrodynamic models of the regions’ rivers. Eventually, public “water maps” showing water flows in real-time will reveal the transport of individual pollutants and trouble spots. Robots will also be getting an upgrade as well: prototypes to dive below the surface and find their own way are already in the works.
“In the future, cost and size will go down, while performance and autonomy will go up, enabling monitoring at unprecedented scales,” says project leader Alexandre Bayen, a researcher at Berkeley and the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) in a release. “We expect this to become an invaluable tool for the future management of a critical resource in this state and around the world.”