August 21, 2019 | 72° F

Rutgers engineering team uses drones to check water quality in Raritan River

Photo by YouTube |

With a donation close to $1 million, members of the University’s Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering will utilize drone technology to study and help prevent water contamination in the Raritan River. YOUTUBE.COM

Using drones and underwater robots to monitor water quality may seem like the plot line of a science fiction movie — but it is actually one of the latest projects between the Rutgers Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

The project is called “Enabling Real-time Dynamic Control and Adaptation of Networked Robots in Resource-constrained and Uncertain Environments,” according to the School of Engineering website.

It is paid for through a sizable National Science Foundation grant, according to the website. The team received $999,904 in funds.

In a collaboration between Javier Diez and Jingang Yi, faculty members in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Pompili’s plan is to have drones monitor water quality at rivers, lakes and artificial or natural reservoirs in real time. 

This is important because it could prevent contaminated water from reaching civilian populations and help engineers deploy appropriate and timely solutions.

Dario Pompili, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said incidents in the past that led to contaminated water have left people without access to clean water.

“We have seen that water-contamination incidents such as the one occurred in West Virginia on Jan. 9, 2014 caused by an accidental chemical spill may lead to the non-availability of drinking water for thousands of residents, livestock and irrigation, and also result in adverse effects on aquatic life. In order to make optimal decisions, it is necessary to collect, aggregate and process water data in real time," Pompili said in an email.

He explained that the goal of the research project is to design a "Cyber-Physical System" where drones can identify "regions of interest" (ROIs), take measurements, transform that information into raw data and then into knowledge.

Cyber-Physical Systems can be more efficient because they rapidly deploy at a low cost, which allows integration with other, more expensive systems, he said.

“This enables them to probe the water body on their own to identify (ROIs) and perform triage to decide which of these (ROIs) they have to work on and which regions need attention from the boat," Pompili said.

They also divide the autonomous vehicles into two categories, those who can operate in two mediums — such as air and water — and those who can only operate in water, he said. This helps operation run more smoothly.

The Raritan River is a major New Jersey river and provides a quality case study, Pompili said. It is a unique laboratory available
 to the University.

“The Raritan River watershed is impacted by contaminated sites and sewage treatment systems. Pollution from contaminated sites leaks into the river and harms the environment and public health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, over 16 noxious chemicals and solids were found infecting the section of the Raritan River that borders New Brunswick," Pompili said.

The project will enable streamlined and improved monitoring of the river, he said. And will help protect against chemicals like arsenic, benzopyrene and the pesticide heptachlor epoxide, which could potentially affect the water supply.

Pompili said the watersheds should be monitored regularly to provide usable data about water quality and its overall health.

The project is important to Rutgers, because it will develop a pipeline of diverse and computer-literate engineers who can help solve related problems, he said. Because the project requires theoretical skills, system-level skills and cross-disciplinary expertise, it will provide Rutgers engineering teams with an educational experience.

"The team will conduct integrated field testing on the Raritan River, which has been polluted with industrial toxic waste for over 100 years," according to the website. "The Raritan is also the state’s largest contiguous wildlife corridor, offering refuge to numerous threatened and endangered species. The researchers say that the river serves as a unique laboratory system in Rutgers’ backyard."

Jaehyun Kim

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