Clarkson University Magazine: Reading the River


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August 20, 2008, a 3,000-pound, eight-by-22 foot-robotic platform was launched into the Hudson River just north of Denning’s Point Peninsula in Beacon, N.Y.

reon2On board the floating platform were state-of-the-art sensors that provided continuous air and water monitoring of data, including barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, water depth, temperature, salinity and flow rate. The sensors also measured, among other things, the levels of hydrogen contaminants, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll-a in the water. The data was then transferred in real time to researchers who tracked fluctuations in these measurements.

Four years later that technology is revolutionizing the way bodies of water are monitored.

Today, along New York’s Hudson, Mohawk and St. Lawrence rivers, physical, chemical and biological data is being collected from various points via an integrated network of sensor platforms.  The real-time data collected along the rivers provides scientists and engineers with a map of the overall health of these waterways and alerts them to fluctuations that could be early signs of ecological problems.

This state-of-the-art monitoring and forecasting network for rivers and estuaries was developed through a three-way partnership between Clarkson University, the Beacon Institute for River and Estuaries, a not-for-profit environmental research organization, and IBM.

Last October, Clarkson and the Beacon Institute formally reorganized their partnership by establishing the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries - Clarkson University.  Timothy Sugrue has been named President and CEO of the Institute. Within this new operational structure, Beacon, now a subsidiary of Clarkson, will help establish New York as the leader in research and education for water innovation.

“Our alliance with Clarkson University means great things for the State of New York, and will solidly place on the world stage our advancements in research, policy and education,” said Beacon Institute Founding Director John Cronin, an internationally known environmentalist and former Hudson Riverkeeper. Under the new alliance, Cronin will join Clarkson’s faculty as a Beacon Institute Fellow.

The technology was originally developed by a team of scientists and researchers headed up by Clarkson Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering James Bonner ’85 at the Shoreline Environmental Research Facility at Texas A&M University where he served as founding director. While in Corpus Christi, Bonner and fellow researchers developed sensing systems that they used to monitor the Gulf of Mexico. When he joined the Clarkson faculty in 2007, Bonner (who holds a Ph.D. from Clarkson) continued his NSF-funded research program with an eye toward transferring the technology to map and monitor the ecological health of the rivers, Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.  

When he came to Clarkson, Bonner was given a joint appointment at the Beacon Institute as head research scientist of the River and Estuary Observatory Network (REON), which was first established by Beacon in partnership with IBM. The project was made possible in part by IBM’s “Stream Computing” system, which provides a cyber-infrastructure that stores and processes river data. Scientists and engineers around the world are then able to access this information via the Internet.

The REON monitoring system alerts scientists and environmentalists to escalating pollution levels or to episodic events that can be problematic, such as algae blooms, which can lead to hypoxia. Hypoxia is characterized by a low concentration of oxygen that is exacerbated by increases in nutrients or a particular set of physical conditions. It is associated with fish kills among other problems.

After the initial sensor platform launch in 2008, the sensor array was redesigned in 2009 and 2010 and then redeployed. PV panels provide solar power to batteries on deck, which power everything on the sensor platform including the wireless communications. The computer-controlled autonomous robotic profiler enables sensors to move up and down in the water  for measurements.

An on-board computer receives information from the instruments and serves as a data logger, and relays commands to profilers. Remote programming allows for autonomous and cyber control of the sensor array.

In 2011, the system was further modified to include the addition of GPS and a camera. 

The REON system and technology are designed to be replicable for rivers and estuaries worldwide. China and Korea have sent scientists and engineers to visit the Beacon Institute’s research team to learn more about REON’s applications.  

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Green Data Center

The REON water management research program requires a robust cyber-infrastructure and data backbone in order to process the massive amounts of data it collects.

To meet these needs, Clarkson is developing a green data center using IBM technologies that will also serve as research facilities for the Beacon Institute.

Clarkson has received an IBM Shared University Research award of more than $1 million, that includes an IBM POWER7 processor-based IBM Smart Analytics System, IBM BladeCenter servers, IBM System Storage, IBM System Networking, and IBM WebSphere application software for the data center.

The new facility will substantially expand the University’s capacity to engage in complex computational research and advanced analytics, as well as enhance the operational systems of the University.

Michael Desens, IBM’s vice president, Power and System z Development, said, “IBM and Clarkson have a rich history of joint research and development and this award will accelerate our collaborative efforts in support of Clarkson, Beacon Institute’s REON observation system and IBM’s Smarter Water Initiative”

As part of the Green Data Center’s functionality, IBM and Clarkson researchers are planning a design that captures the waste heat from the servers and uses it to naturally heat the facility. In contrast to large traditional data centers, the footprint of the state-of-the-art center at Clarkson uses existing space with minimal modifications.

The IBM Shared University Research (SUR) Award is a worldwide award program designed to promote research in areas of mutual value and interest to IBM and universities. The program targets a wide variety of areas, ranging from life sciences, high-performance computing and energy technology, to digital data protection.

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