Daily Iowan: UI Students Develop Flood Sensors

Thursday, February 18, 2010

By Kellie Petersen
Daily Iowan

When it came time for a group of UI engineering students to begin their project for the Capstone Senior Design class, they turned to the floods of 2008 for inspiration.

But their inspiration may have come less from the floods themselves than from how to help better forecast floods in the future. Seniors Matt Kemp, Ben Peiffer, and Nick Sitter designed a sensor to measure water levels, along with the help of graduate-student adviser Jim Niemeier.

“I think it hits a little closer to home, being in Iowa and seeing the pictures,” said Kemp, a native of Dubuque.

The sensor, which attaches to the bottom of bridges, uses ultrasonic waves to measure water levels, said Anton Kruger, a UI associate professor of hydroscience and engineering who mentored the students’ project.

The waves bounce off the water and back to the sensor, and the time interval tells the sensor how high the water is. Kruger compared the technology to a bat’s use of ultrasound waves to sense things around them.

Each device is also equipped with a cell modem, allowing it to send the most current measurement to computers at the UI every 15 minutes.

The Iowa Flood Center helped finance the project’s development costs, and the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Transportation have expressed interest in the models, Kruger said.

The units cost approximately $3,000 each to produce. Beyond development and installation, Kruger said the only additional cost should be for the monthly phone bill.

Though the students designed the sensors to target streams and smaller rivers, they can be placed on any bridge, Kruger said. Kemp noted this would help more accurately predict when floods could hit major waterways the streams flow into.

Chris Lagro, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities, said Iowa City is at a greater risk for flooding this spring because of above-normal precipitation levels over the past three years and the saturated ground.

The Iowa River is approximately 9 feet below flood stage, similar to river levels in 2008, Largo said. But he stressed the comparison is not cause for concern.

“It’s not exactly a one-to-one correlation,” said Lagro. “We don’t want to alarm people when they don’t need to be alarmed. Just because the river levels are higher than 2008 does not mean the water will go higher than 2008.”

Lagro said that in 2008, a different combination of factors created the severe flooding, such as the large amount of snow that thawed just as heavy rains began to fall.

While areas in northwestern Iowa and the Dakotas have a moderate to major flood risk, the risk to Iowa City is between mild to moderate, Largo said.

But UI officials are still prepared.

Don Guckert, the UI associate vice president for Facilities Management, said the UI Flood Emergency Response Plan was updated after the 2008 flood, and the university plans to use new materials — notably HESCO steel walls — to protect structures.

Kemp said he hopes their flood sensors can help prevent severe damage in future floods.

“If we can do anything to help prepare a place like Iowa City and Cedar Rapids from a disaster like that again, I am glad I can be a part of that,” he said.