A network of underwater robots beaming up a near real-time environmental profile of lakes, rivers and reservoirs could soon be on the prowl helping safeguard drinking water from sabotage.
The robots would replace researchers who painstakingly collect water samples in bottles and take them back to the laboratory for analysis, an expensive, time-consuming and sometimes dangerous practice.
By summer 2005, Syracuse University researchers will have installed a dozen robotic sensors to form the largest underwater monitoring system of its kind in the country and one of the most extensive in the world, said principal investigator Charles Driscoll, a professor of environmental systems engineering at Syracuse.
The project will cover more than 25 miles of the Seneca River and five connected lakes, including three municipal drinking water sources for more than 500,000 people in central New York: Otisco, Skaneateles and Owasco lakes.
"Not too far off, though, this technology will be able to serve as an early warning system, a network of robotic sentinels, to protect our waterways from terrorist attacks," said Steven Effler, executive director of the Upstate Freshwater Institute, a partner in the project.
The institute also oversees a network of six robots in the Schoharie Reservoir and Schoharie and Esopus creeks, which provide drinking water for New York City.
Similar underwater environmental monitoring programs are under way in Minnesota, Washington, Nevada and North Carolina, said Bruce Munson, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, where the technology was pioneered.
"This is promising technology," said Ben Grumbles, who heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's water office. "The key to protecting our water resources is real-time monitoring. These robots present an exciting opportunity to accomplish that."
The water-detection system is one of several projects under way by researchers and companies to hone sensitive detection equipment for use in homeland security. For example, researchers at Pennsylvania State University are working on an inexpensive, disposable sensor for ricin, the highly poisonous protein found in castor beans and thought to be a potential terrorism agent.
The underwater robots are known as a RUSS system — Remote Underwater Sampling Stations — developed in the late 1990s as part of a National Science Foundation educational project to give college and high school students an opportunity to monitor lakes and rivers over the Internet. The first systems were installed in 1998 in Ice Lake and Lake Independence in Minnesota.