Surfin’ USA: Beach buoys now detect sea contamination

28 Apr 2016

Researchers in the US are trialling a new suite of smart beach buoys to monitor water contamination along the coast, alerting beachgoers as to the safety of the seawater in real time.

Sensor-heavy buoys dotted within eyeshot of the beach could soon keep us afloat of any worrying contamination issues in the sea, thanks to researchers in Michigan.

Measuring water temperature, clarity, cleanliness and more, the buoys use a cellular modem to upload the data to a server on land. Then, via an easy, instant RSS feed, the information reaches those who need to know.

I get around

So rather than finding out about a contaminated beach two days after you already went for a swim there, you can find out in real time and get around to whatever beach is best suited. It also means authorities can react faster, and probably with better information. It could also mean contaminated beaches are reopened quicker.

“That can have a real effect on local economies,” said Phanikumar Mantha, an MSU professor of civil and environmental engineering and a member of the research team. “If you close a beach unnecessarily, it’s hurting the local businesses.”

Work on this early warning system has been ongoing for more than a decade and is being used on a number of Lake Michigan beaches in Chicago.

“Our ultimate goal is to protect the public from getting exposed to contaminated water,” said Mantha. “This problem can be particularly hard on children and seniors, who tend to be more susceptible to its dangers.”

Good vibrations

Using sensors out in the ocean is a long-running saga. Last year, New South Wales officials began trialling ‘smart drum lines’ off their coast to alert people as to where sharks were.

Rather than capturing sharks in drums, only being discovered several days later, movement triggered alarms that workers could react to fast. Given the high number of sharks around the country, they were using drones, too.

Back in 2012, a special buoy that was installed for the final leg of the Volvo Ocean Race was kitted out with meteorological and oceanographic sensors, it tweeted out data automatically to give people insights into sea and weather conditions in Galway Bay in the lead up to the finals of the global sailing race.

The MSU research into smart beach buoys was released in the Journal of Environmental Management.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic