Researchers hope that SAUVs, or solar-powered autonomous under water vehicles, like the one tested in the river this summer will soon patrol the Hudson. They would become part of a riverwide sensor network providing real-time information on things like toxic spills and fish migrations. "Hard-wiring the Hudson," one advocate calls it.
The embryonic "Riverscope" network is one of many ecological sensor webs being designed that would keep track of everything from ocean currents to mice padding across corn fields. Scientists who study ecosystems say the networks will provide information so vast and so detailed it will change the way they work.
"We're talking about a bold new world of information that would give scientists a quality and quantity of data that they've never had before," said John Cronin, executive director of the Beacon Institute, which is developing Riverscope.
Data collection is as old as science, but Riverscope and similar systems allow information to be collected and quickly analyzed from a bunch of points over a large area. Researchers compare it to how Doppler radar and satellites sharpened the ability of meteorologists to analyze complex weather systems and make accurate forecasts.
Take the example of tracking an oil spill: Instead of taking test samples from a boat, researchers could tap into a network of chemical sensors already in the water; separate sensors tracking water flow could help predict where the oil will spread.
Riverscope started in 2004 with five shoreline sensors measuring conditions like flow, pres sure, temperature and turbidity along a 130-mile stretch from Haverstraw, Rockland, to Mechanicville. The stations in the upper river and the lower river are maintained by, respectively, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observa tory.
Cronin said the river will be come more plugged in over the next five years, though whether it will be through fiber-optic cables, wireless technology or some combination has yet to be worked out.
He expects the roving SAUVs to fill in the gaps between stationary sensors. The craft, built to withstand ocean exploration, could run continuously for a month thanks to solar panels attached to the torpedo body like wings.
"You could have it running from Albany to New York City on a regular basis," said Art Sanderson, a professor of electrical, computer and systems engi neering at RPI.
Sanderson said the network could be configured to track invasive species like zebra mussels, or PCBs kicked up from the planned dredging of the upper river. Cronin said the network could pinpoint times when freshly spawned fish are passing by power plant water intakes, giving operators a chance to respond.
Cronin hopes to have a functioning real-time system publicly available within the next 15 years, a period roughly in line with other network systems being planned.
These are costly ventures. Cronin said Riverscope could cost tens of millions of dollars.
July 3, 2006