Wireless sensor technology to monitor environments

Cash-poor local councils and developing countries don’t need huge budgets to obtain valuable, continuous environmental data to inform sustainable management policies, new research suggests.

Griffith University’s Dr Jarrod Trevathan and the University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Ron Johnstone are refining a wireless sensor network technology known as SEMAT (Smart Environmental Monitoring & Assessment Technologies) that measures the biological responses to changing environmental conditions.

Dr Trevathan said the SEMAT system used the existing GSM mobile phone network, enabling affordable remote monitoring across vast geographical areas previously almost impossible to reach with other network technologies.

“Data is transferred in near real-time to a cloud-based server and stored in a powerful back-end database management system,” Dr Trevathan said.

“Users can view the collected data in a simple and intuitive web-based user interface which allows them to download the data and also set alerts when certain key environmental conditions occur, such as conditions conducive to algal blooms.”

Dr Johnstone said the technology enabled environmental managers and researchers to use real-time information sent to their laptops from underwater sensors, and allowed them to command the system remotely to adapt to their needs.

“We can measure underwater light climate, turbidity, temperature and salinity,” Dr Johnstone said.

“The system is tailored to overcome constraints, such as limited budget and staff capacity, currently hindering more effective environmental monitoring by local governments and agencies.”

The system recently attracted a Logan City Council Envirogrant to deploy further testing at a Lake Ellerslie site at Meadowbrook, Logan.

Three sensors are also being deployed in the Bundamba Creek Catchment at Ipswich to examine the impact of new housing estates on the natural habitat.

Dr Johnstone said the project, originally funded by a Queensland Government NIRAP grant, could use off-the-shelf componentry, solar power, and adapt easily to emerging technologies.

“We’ve also joined forces with Substation 33, a social enterprise initiative engaged in recycling electronic components and other materials discarded in electrical appliances and equipment,” he said.

“This collaboration means we are now using components produced by 3-D printing with recycled plastic, and incorporating various components such as recycled batteries and connectors.

“This greatly reduces the environmental footprint of the SEMAT technology and bolsters its overall environmental contribution.”

Dr Johnstone said the research team had been continuously improving the designs, miniaturising the componentry and honing the software.

“It was originally tested in the Great Barrier Reef, Moreton Bay, and in Italy, and we have demonstrated that if it works in difficult watery environments, it will work anywhere,” Dr Johnstone said.

“Marine environments are particularly hostile and difficult for deploying sensitive measurement systems and, as a consequence, the need for data is greatest in marine environments, particularly in developing economies and regions.

“A large part of the world’s communities rely heavily on healthy marine ecosystems, so the potential impact of this technology is immense.”

Dr Johnstone said the low-cost approach made it ideal for agriculture and aquaculture in developing countries where expense is a barrier to smart environmental monitoring.