Cutting-Edge Sensors Planned for Lake George

Amanda May Metzger
October 19, 2014

Soon an army of sensors equipped with IBM “smart” technology will take positions around Lake George and its tributaries to collect and send intelligence back to a cutting-edge laboratory on the shore in the most high-tech offensive in the world against threats to lake health.

The new data visualization laboratory at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute in Bolton Landing was unveiled Friday, marking a milestone in the Jefferson Project at Lake George, a collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM and The Fund for Lake George.

This is a big data approach to protection. It’s what you do with the data to understand trends, not only as they occur to date, but as they’re likely to occur into the future. With this data and modeling capacity, we can understand what it’s going to take to keep Lake George from falling off an ecological cliff,” said the Fund’s Executive Director Eric Siy.

Siy said the technology unveiled “is really the brain of the Jefferson project.”

Once all the sensors are deployed and connected and the data is streaming into the visualization lab, that’s when we can really ramp up our understanding,” Siy said.

Four types of sensor platforms will transmit data back to the visualization lab so scientists can monitor the four complex environmental systems interacting: weather, hydrology (runoff and the contaminants it introduces into the lake) lake circulation and the food web.

RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson said it will offer a “panoramic view” of the lake.

We are establishing a new scientific model for environmental stewardship that will guide the conservation of fresh water sources worldwide,” Jackson said.

Senior Vice President and Director of Research for IBM John E. Kelly III said the visualization lab is “much more than a display center” and the project is bigger than Lake George. IBM is developing technology to bring to help conserve other fresh water bodies around the world.

We are advancing computer science and the visualization of massive amounts of data,” Kelly said.

Jeff Killeen, chairman for the Fund, said the Fund will serve as a bridge between the scientific research and what is done as a result of the findings, like policy change.

(Lake George) sits on the precipice of some potentially very negative water quality decline if its stressors aren’t thoroughly understood, abated and ideally reversed,” Killeen said.

Threats to Lake George’s clear water includes road-salt runoff, invasive species and algae fed by nutrients that shouldn’t be getting into the lake, which doubles as drinking water.

The Jefferson Project, launched in June 2013, began with two high-tech survey vessels covering 9,000 miles of data to obtain precise measurements of depth and contours around the 32-mile lake and its watershed. Planes also collected data to create the first detailed underwater map of Lake George.

The project is named for Thomas Jefferson’s 1791 quote about the lake, in which he called it “without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw.”

About a dozen sensor platforms are expected to be deployed by the end of the year. Each platform contains multiple sensors and IBM technology that makes them “smart.” For example, they can perceive surroundings and know to take measurements more frequently if a storm occurs.

The sensors around the lake can communicate with each other, each equipped with the equivalent of cell phone technology, said the project Director Rick Relyea, whose appointment was announced Friday as well.

They can talk to each other and say things like, ‘I’m seeing something really odd, do you see that too?’ This is the smart technology we’re talking about. They have the ability to think for themselves to a fair degree,” Relyea said.

There will also be weather stations around the lake and tributary monitors that will provide data about the water flowing into Lake George.

People might notice yellow floating buoys equipped with solar panels around the lake. They’re called vertical profilers, and they contain a weather station and winch inside that continuously lowers and raises a large blue cylindrical device with sensor prongs to measure pH levels, algae, dissolved oxygen, temperature and other characteristics at every depth of the lake.

So we’ll know across space and time what’s happening to the lake,” Relyea said.

He said sensors that will sit on the bottom of the lake and use radar, like a speed radar gun, will be installed possibly in the coming months or next spring. In total, he said there will be 30 to 40 sensors around the lake.

They will send data back to the visualization lab in a newly built two-story building — about 2,000 square feet, the size of an average three-bedroom home — containing a giant nine-panel high- resolution display wall station powered by two “supercomputers.”

The visualization lab allows scientists to zoom in to high resolution 3-D digital models as close as a half a meter — an unprecedented level of detail for a lake the size of Lake George.

Officials would not reveal the exact cost of the multi-million dollar project, the equipment or the technology.

IBM is inventing technology that is not commercially available, so how do we put a cost estimate on it?” Relyea said.

Kelly and his wife Helen-Jo Kelly gave a gift to support the data visualization lab, the monetary value of which was undisclosed and described as “major” and able to support the program for years to come.

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