Monitoring water health with In-Situ
Monitoring water health with In-Situ
Rocky Mountain National Park’s 415 square miles encompasses a range of mountain environments; from the towering mountain peaks from which the park gets its name to meadows, alpine lakes and flowing streams. The waters of the park are essential to its diverse flora and fauna, but also to the water health of the wider United States (US). Waters on the western side of the park form the headwaters of the Colorado River, while streams and rivers on the eastern side are part of the Mississippi River’s drainage. Although water quality in the park is higher than most places, threats do exist; chemicals being transported to the alpine lakes, the harms of overfertilization, and the impact of droughts and climate change on the water systems. For environmental scientists looking to keep the waters healthy, the key is to have regular, reliable monitoring of the water. The story is the same across many thousands of sites across the globe. A little to the east of the park in Fort Collins, Colorado, the team at In-Situ continue to shape how such monitoring is achieved with their innovative products.
The role of telemetry
Matt Trumbo, Director of Product Management, explains how the company has evolved.
“The environmental monitoring sector has grown rapidly over the last decade. The need for monitoring has been steadily more understood since the 1950s, with the increased realization that we’re severely damaging our waterways,” says Mr. Trumbo. “Science has been fairly consistent on the importance of measuring that impact on our water, but we lacked the usable technology that would allow us to do it reliably, accurately and at scale.”
The pressing need for monitoring continues to be the key driver of the sector with increased awareness of warming oceans, overfertilization, and pollutants damaging aquatic life.
In-Situ started as an organization that excelled in understanding water level – measuring water quantity in groundwater, rivers and lakes in a highly accurate way. While still market leaders in level measurement, the company now offers an expansive portfolio of instrumentation to monitor water quality, as well as the telemetry and software to transmit, access and manage the data.
In-Situ’s Aqua TROLL sensors can measure temperature, pH, salinity (measured by conductivity of the water), turbidity (‘cloudiness’), chlorophyll a, blue-green algae and more. Monitoring dissolved oxygen, for example, is particularly important for understanding environmental impacts on aquatic life. Accurate data on a water’s ‘cloudiness’ can help to track the potential for algal blooms in a system.
The range of what can be measured continues to grow. But Mr. Trumbo also points to the importance of how data is then collected and relayed to the user. This, he says, is another key reason for the industry’s growth.
“Budgets and resources are a real consideration because efficient companies want to do continue doing more with less,” he says. “If you are an organization that requires environmental monitoring, the traditional way would have been to drive up to your monitoring site, download the data from the sensor, and then return to your base to analyze it. If your sensors are up in the mountains, then that can take up the best part of your day. Add to that the reality that you’re only able to gather that data every three months or so.”
Telemetry devices can remove some of that hardship by relaying the data directly from the sensor – acting as a bridge between the equipment and the user.
Mr Trumbo explains how In-Situ developed the VuLink device to alleviate some of the problems being encountered with other telemetry devices. It works alongside the sensors to store and beam the collected data directly to the cloud (HydroVu) at regular intervals (be that every day, or even every hour).
“We knew that telemetry would be an invaluable part of environmental monitoring – but any user would tell you that the existing products weren’t fit for the purpose. We’d hear a lot about issues with software, with the design, and even just mounting the equipment in the field. When it came to relaying the data, there were a whole host of other problems that fundamentally required environmental scientists to become cellular experts – a far cry from what they trained for.”
“That’s where our engineers came to the fore - to make a device that was simple and usable. The products we take to market have that strong customer focus. It’s not that long since you had to drag a bulky laptop to the monitoring site, connect to it with a cable, and then trawl through clunky spreadsheets of data. VuLink provides the user with a mobile app that connects wirelessly to the instrumentation, and sends data wirelessly back to home base. At every stage of the process we’ve designed it with the user experience in mind.”
With the new technology, business has tripled in the last decade, and the In-Situ team estimates that 80-90% of all environmental data is still gathered “by hand” meaning there’s room for even more growth.
Powering the VuLink
When it comes to powering the VuLink, reliability is key.
“When you’ve got these devices way up in the mountains or buried under snow, you don’t want to have any worries about them failing due to the battery,” says Mr. Trumbo. “We’ve used Saft batteries in our other products and they have an exceptional record for reliability, so we knew that we were in good hands. These are completely sealed titanium boxes that are designed to be underwater. You really don’t want to have to replace them every few years.”
The device is powered by LM 336000 batteries – selected for their consistent performance that allows the device to work for over a decade in the field.
“We find our devices are deployed in a whole range of settings – from the tundra to the desert – and so the operating range for temperature is key. With Saft we can always get clarity about performance upfront and it’s always accurate – so we never have to question what will happen in different environments.”
The flexibility afforded by the high performance means VuLink can be used for a wide range of applications. It continues to be used by the US Government and environmental protection agencies, but has also been put to use in a variety of innovative, and often surprising ways by a multitude of customers, including the Seattle Aquarium, which uses it to support animal well-being with water monitoring during long-distance transport.
Mr. Trumbo points to an innovative use in copper mining that has been particularly exciting.
“Copper mining can be very intrusive, and so much of our technology is reliant on copper. Finding new ways to safely extract it is paramount. We’ve got a customer who is working on extracting copper from deep deposits, that you couldn’t extract by traditional means, with pioneering approaches that involve pumping acids down into the earth. Of course, that comes with a need to avoid any harmful elements escaping into the surrounding water system, so they’re using our instrumentation to give them precise information on the water quality around the site – keeping the environment safe while they mine.”
“That’s not an area we had particularly considered when designing the devices,” he adds. “But part of the joy of this work is in seeing how our innovations are helping unlock opportunities for their own applications.”