Sensing a Change in the Weather


At the annual Minds@Work conference in April, more than 400 undergraduate and graduate students from across disciplines will present their student research through poster projects, department panels, and oral presentations. One such project from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering has the potential to change the way researchers gather information on global warming and sea level change at NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility.

For the past two years, seniors Tyler Garrett and David Kinna, both computer engineering majors, and senior Chris Jeffery, a physics major, have designed, developed, and implemented a more efficient and cost effective way to collect and observe climate change data in real time.

By using a 3D printer on campus, they developed environmental data sensors, also known as anchors, that judge water depth, conductivity, humidity, and temperature among other things. “What we’re trying to do is place them near Wallop’s Island, Virginia, so that we can gauge what’s happening there,” Garrett said. “Wallops Island has one of the quickest rising sea levels in the world. We figured if we go there, we could get some of the best information possible.”

There are data sensors at Wallops Island now, but Garrett said the process is expensive and time consuming. The sensors cost between $2,000 and $5,000. Researchers have to wade out in the water to place and later retrieve the sensors to collect data.

“We’re trying to create a network of these sensors that can relay the information back to a centralized computer system, and to do that, we’re using the process of rapid prototyping. That’s where the 3D printer comes into play,” he said. “Instead of having our design sent to another company and waiting for it to return, we can print it here in a few hours, test it, and if we have an issue, we can just reprint it either that day or the next day. It’s a lot faster, and it’s a lot cheaper.”

Garrett, Kinna, and Jeffery produced the anchors last year and are in the process of collecting data this year. They said that properly implementing the project could provide a live feed that allows researchers to watch the weather or view changes and implement a warning system. “These sensors can be used not just at Wallops Island but all across the world on any coastline,” Garrett said.

Garret, Kinna, and Jeffery have presented the project at several conferences and will provide their findings as a poster project at the Minds@Work conference April 19.