Valarm uses Senix ToughSonic ultrasonic sensors to help build StormSense flood monitoring solution

The Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where the James River meets Chesapeake Bay, has a storied history of flooding during storms and hurricanes recorded back to the first colonists in the 1600s. Originally chartered in 1693, the College of William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg has long been researching the local marine environment and flooding. In 1940, the College chartered the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) which soon became one of the largest marine research and education systems in the United States. VIMS has been producing graduates interested in flooding research for many years. In 2014, one of their graduate students, Derek Loftis, created a flood forecast software package as part of his PhD dissertation. That software has taken on new importance for the Hampton Roads area.

In 2016, cities located in the Hampton Roads region joined forces to improve their ability to predict future flooding. Together, they participated in the National Institute of Standard’s (NIST) Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) to win a grant allowing them to increase the number of water level sensors in the Hampton Roads area to improve real-time tide and flood predictions.  In recent years, “sunny-day-flooding” has become an increasingly frequent nuisance, especially during “king tides” when the moon is at its closest to the earth and is aligned with the sun.

Dr. Jon Derik Loftis

Dr Jon Derek Loftis

Dr. Derek Loftis, by then an assistant research scientist at VIMS, added his software to the project, which then became the “StormSense” project. The StormSense software is evolving through the efforts of a team of estuarine hydrodynamics experts at VIMS who have developed street-level flood inundation models with very detailed 3-ft spatial resolution. This means flood forecasts are hoped to eventually become accurate enough that alerted citizens can move their cars from one end of the street to the other a few hours before the rising waters arrive. The StormSense team is working toward making the StormSense software available to other cities via the Amazon Marketplace on the Amazon Web Services platform, allowing them to build their own flood monitoring and forecast systems.

As they say in computing, garbage-in equals garbage-out, so StormSense is reliant on high quality and timely water-level data to both make its predictions and to confirm and improve them after flooding events. Initially the StormSense system utilized delayed water data collected from numerous rain gauges and a handful of water-level gauges throughout the Hampton Roads area. In 2017, twenty-eight water-level sensors were added to the system to bring it up to real-time. These sensors included ultrasonic distance measuring sensors that take a few measurements every hour. As soon as they’re taken, those measurements are then transmitted back to a cloud server to collect and display the data for analysis, and feed into the forecast engine.

Construction of the real-time monitors incorporating the water level sensors was provided by Valarm Inc., out of southern California. Valarm is a high-technology integration company which makes critical software enabling organizations to easily roll out real-time sensor monitoring systems utilizing Industrial Internet of Things (Industrial IoT) sensors.

IoT describes a technology that allows numerous sensors to all feed their data back to a central server on the internet that collects and displays the data for analysis and action. Valarm designs software and hardware solutions that are deployed by Smart Cities and various industries for water resources management, chemical distribution, tank monitoring, and water well monitoring. Valarm works closely with their customers to integrate remote sensor monitoring information exactly as the customer needs it, whether it’s integration with models like StormSense for near real-time data transmission, the Esri ArcGIS platform, or other business intelligence and analytics systems.

Sensors of all types can utilize IoT data transmission techniques to get their data where it needs to go. The technique Valarm implemented for the StormSense project is cell-phone radio transmissions. Cell-phone radio modules are embedded in the electronics housings of the flood monitors, powered by batteries and charged by solar panels. Because sensors take measurements only a few times every hour, cell phone use, the amount of data transmitted, and the energy required to power it all is considerably less than for continuously powered devices, reducing overall costs of the system. Because of that low-energy use, IoT monitors are expected to run for many years unattended, unpowered other than by solar, and unconnected to anything other than the cell network. This is the case for the StormSense system in Hampton Roads.

The Hampton Roads cities deploying the Storm Sense solution have a hand in deciding the water-level sensors that best fit each deployment environment. The City of Virginia Beach chose to deploy ultrasonic sensors from Senix Corporation in Hinesburg, Vermont.  Senix “ToughSonic” sensors have gained a reputation for ruggedness and long life with nearly 100,000 sensors in use since 1990. ToughSonic sensors, waterproof and housed in stainless steel, have become the “flood sensor” of choice for flood monitoring systems all over the world.

ToughSonic “Tough and Smart” sensors simplify IoT integration by including their own internal intelligence that provides reliable and accurate measurements to the IoT system.  Every ToughSonic sensor has a built-in microcontroller and digital filters that can process numerous ultrasonic “pings” taken over several seconds into just one single measurement output to the monitoring system. The final measurement the user sees excludes extraneous objects, such as birds, bugs, or other objects passing through the ultrasonic beam.  This filtering capability can determine the average of wave heights instead a wave peak measurement from one ping and then a wave trough the next.

ToughSonic “Tough and Smart” sensors work reliably as waves pass, as tides rise or fall, from bridges as high as 60 feet above the water, and in the worst weather conditions imaginable, because that is when people are relying on them the most.

As seas continue to rise in the coming decades, collecting data about flooding becomes increasingly important to more municipalities.  Collecting good data of where flooding occurs today will allow for better predictions of where flooding will occur in the future. With improved future flooding predictions, flood prevention and mitigation measures can make the best use of municipal dollars. As Dr. Derek Loftis of the StormSense project suggests, “we intend this data to be used by flood-prone cities to make strategic decisions that will have a real-world impact on their citizens.” Collecting critical data is an important step in taking action against flooding.

Senix Corporation

Keith Randall

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