Smart Buoys keep watch on Lake Erie’s water quality, help build Cleveland’s economy
A network of sensors that serve as an early-warning system for weather and water quality in the Lake Erie watershed is about to be redeployed, and this season the network will be expanded.
The existing sensors got some cleaning and adjusting Wednesday in a Cleveland State University lab. Some of the dozens of sensors will be integrated into a smart buoy system that will be deployed on the lake in May. This will be the third May-to-October season the network will deliver real-time info on lake conditions and serve as a springboard to build Cleveland’s water-based economy.
The Cleveland Water Alliance, an economic development partnership, hosted Wednesday's event showing off the network along with Freeboard Technology, a new Midtown company that the alliance says exemplifies the new business that it wants to attract to the region.
The crowd of about 50 included water plant managers, alliance officials and company executives, along with CSU professors and student researchers. They are all part of the ecosystem that the alliance is building around water quality and related innovations.
“We’re really harnessing the players and the opportunities to find solutions to freshwater issues and making Cleveland a destination for people all over the world,” said Samantha Martin, communications manager for the alliance, which is based in Midtown. “Whether they are researchers or innovators who come in, we want to help make their innovations a reality. We can solve issues … and also have an economic impact here.”
The alliance says the 40 smart buoys it deploys on the lake from Toledo to Ashtabula, and on inland rivers and streams, generate real-time data covering 6,000 square miles of the Lake Erie watershed. It’s the most digitally connected watershed in the world, alliance officials said.
The data the lake buoys deliver protects Cleveland’s drinking water, according to Ed Verhamme, a principal for Limnotech, an environmental engineering firm in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s the parent company of Freeboard Technology, which oversees the smart buoy network on Lake Erie and performs similar services for 20 other clients from Ohio to California.
Last summer, the smart buoys sensed that an oxygen-depleted zone of water was approaching Cleveland’s water intake pipes. That allowed Cleveland water officials to adjust their water treatment appropriately, Verhamme said.
“They said the system paid for itself in that one event,’’ Verhamme said.
The brains of the smart buoys are sondes, which are 2- to 3-foot-long tubes packed with sensors measuring water cloudiness, oxygen levels, algae levels, nutrients, and much more. The info is delivered instantly to scientists, water plant managers, and the public.
Water-sensing sondes have been used for years by the water utility managers and workers who came to CSU to have their devices cleaned and calibrated. The sonde technology and what it can test for is becoming more sophisticated. Charles Lacy of Akron’s Watershed Division said the city uses three sondes on Lake Rockwell, the source of the city’s drinking water. He was learning “tips and tricks” for calibrating Akron’s sondes and expanding his network of water quality experts.
The sondes and smart buoys used in the Lake Erie watershed are also helping to build the local economy. The alliance has 34 companies and organizations, some from foreign countries, lined up to test their devices and technology in the alliance’s smart buoy network.
Technologies to be tested include artificial intelligence that detects oxygen depletion, self-cleaning sondes, sensors that can detect algae blooms and telecommunications advances. The idea is that the testing and the alliance’s ability to offer office space and other supportive services might convince a company with a new technology to develop and build it in Cleveland.
“That’s the big win for Cleveland and the alliance,” said Emily Hamilton, deal flow analyst for the alliance. “We are building out this infrastructure for innovators in the water space to create a soft landing for them, and to make it almost difficult for them not to land here.”
The Cleveland Water Alliance said it’s part of a growing, water-based economy that is generating 300 jobs a year locally. The area’s reputation is growing, Hamilton said.
“This is a one of a kind infrastructure built right here on Lake Erie,’’ Hamilton said. “This smart lake, as we call it, is one of a kind globally.”