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Networking the Hudson River

The Hudson could become the world’s largest environmental-monitoring system.
August 29, 2007

IBM and the Beacon Institute, a nonprofit scientific-research organization in Beacon, NY, have announced a collaboration with several other research institutions to create an environmental-monitoring system for New York’s Hudson River. Their plan is to turn all 315 miles of the river into a distributed network of sensors that will collect biological, physical, and chemical information and transmit it to a central location, where it will be analyzed by IBM’s new data acquisition and analysis system. According to John Cronin, CEO of the Beacon Institute, the project is now in its “design phase,” which should be complete within a year and a half to two years.

Modeling the Hudson: A new streaming-data acquisition and analysis system from IBM will receive data from a network of sensors distributed throughout the Hudson River. The system will examine the data and prioritize it, learning to recognize patterns and trends and automatically focusing resources on areas of interest. The system also includes visualization technologies that, fed with mapping data, can synthesize a virtual river, as shown above. This 3-D model will let researchers observe what is happening in the river in real time and track changes in the ecosystem.

The network’s sensors will be deployed in a variety of ways. Some will be mounted on a new robotic underwater vehicle developed by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, both collaborators on the project; the vehicle will be powered by solar cells and can operate either autonomously or under human remote control. Other sensors will be suspended from buoys or fixed in place along the riverbed.

“In terms of having an integrated network of sensors, and given the magnitude of it for the Hudson River, this project is without a doubt a huge advancement and on a much larger scale than anything that has been done before,” says Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute at RPI and a member of the science-research committee at the Beacon Institute.

The scale of the network and the variety of its sensors will demand a massive new data-analysis system, which IBM will provide. Comprising both distributed-processing hardware and analytical software, the system is designed to take heterogeneous data from a variety of sources and make sense of it in real time. The software learns to recognize data patterns and trends and prioritizes useful data. If some data stream begins to exhibit even minor variations, the system automatically redirects resources toward it. The system will also be equipped with IBM’s visualization technologies; fed with mapping data, they can create a virtual model of the river and simulate its ecosystem in real time.


  • See images of the layout of the Hudson River network and a new sensor.

The IBM system “enables us to do a great deal of work in the area of data integration and data management for very large volumes and different types of data,” says Harry Kolar, Global Alliance executive at IBM. “Another reason we are working in this sensor area is that we can actually build end-to-end solutions, meaning from the smallest device to a large back-end system.”

Sensor networks to monitor everything from sewage systems to battlefields have been under development for many years, at companies like Intel, Sun, and Siemens and at academic institutions like the University of California, Los Angeles. But what the “research community has not had is the making-meaning part,” says David Culler, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s what the IBM system is intended to provide.

“A lot of what the research community has been focused on is getting sensors and delivering them through reliable, energy-efficient networks to the computing infrastructure,” says Culler. “But once you have the data, what do you do with it, and how do you sort it?”

Much of the data the IBM system will be called upon to sort will be sensor reports on temperature, pressure, salinity, dissolved oxygen content, and pH levels, which will indicate whether pollutants have entered the river. Other sensors will be directed toward sea life, says Nierzwicki-Bauer, and will be used to study species and determine how communities of microscopic organisms change over time.

The exact number of sensors, their types, and their specific locations along the river have not yet been determined. But Cronin says that the sensors will easily number in the many hundreds, and the collaborators plan to develop new sensors along the way. IBM is also working to interconnect the sensors. According to Kolar, conventional network cables of various kinds, such as fiber-optic cables, will be used in some cases and wireless connections in others, depending on Beacon’s research requirements. And since the Hudson River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, the river network will be designed with the idea of connecting it to oceanic observatory networks as well.

For Beacon, the project is an opportunity to extract new information from the ecosystem of the river and estuary in order to resolve environmental and policy issues. And what makes the Hudson an unusual subject for environmental monitoring–as well as a challenge to network–is that it is host to lots of human activity, says Cronin. The river is used by tankers, tugboats, barges, recreational vessels, and fishermen, and it’s a source of drinking water for six communities. It is also an energy source for sewage treatment plants and industries along the river–in addition to being a home for marine life.

Once the monitoring system is in place, Beacon hopes to extend its efforts globally to create the same type of 24-hour monitoring system in developing countries where rivers are vital to local communities. IBM sees this as a unique opportunity to test and refine some of its advanced hardware and software, as well as develop new technologies for this particular application.

Culler is excited to see IBM involved in an environmental project. “I expect that you are now going to see quite a significant second wave of this [sensor network] technology. We were all really excited about it in 2003, and now in 2007 it is really mature enough that vision can come to reality.”

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