URI professor developing Narragansett Bay Observatory with colleagues across state

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Harold “Bud” Vincent
Harold “Bud” Vincent, associate professor of ocean engineering at URI, stands before a device that will be launched this summer as part of an initiative to collect data about Narragansett Bay. Photo by Shaun Kirby.

NARRAGANSETT, R.I., —March 29, 2018—Harold “Bud” Vincent, associate professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island, stands before a sleek, solar-powered buoy that would look more at home as a satellite in space than an object floating in Narragansett Bay. The machine is one of many that in the coming months will collect data for a new Narragansett Bay Observatory.

Vincent is working side-by-side with researchers from eight other institutions across Rhode Island to develop a system of sensors that will measure for chemicals—such as nitrogen or phosphorus—which are rich food sources for potentially harmful algae and phytoplankton.

But they will also have a unique feature. Each sensor will be programmed to communicate data about those chemicals among each unit, creating a real-time response network for scientists. The information will help communities and businesses respond in the event of harmful algae blooms or unusual population shifts in fish and plant species.

“This is going to be a totally new type of data that hasn’t been gathered before,” says Vincent. “It will provide an opportunity to gather new kinds of scientific information.”

The observatory is being developed as part of a larger initiative, the Rhode Island Consortium for Coastal Ecology Assessment, Innovation and Modeling. Through the project, funded by a $19 million grant from the National Science Foundation, scientists are creating a detailed data collection and interpretation system to help predict the effects of sea-level rise and other climate issues, as well as study human impact on coastal ecosystems.

The information will be used by state and local leaders to help protect community assets and inform workforce and economic development programs throughout Rhode Island.

Vincent and his colleagues are developing a design plan that inventories existing data collection instruments, as well as reaching out to vendors from across the nation to create new sensor devices, from stationary buoys to autonomous vehicles.

“When we design the buoys,” he says, “we want to make sure that when another researcher says, ‘I have this sensor I want to try out in a real environment,’ we have thought ahead and designed our system so that a year or two from now when they come with these new sensors, it would be easy for us to connect their equipment to a buoy and get it into a real-world test environment.”

Such an expansive project does not come without challenges, however, foremost of which is deciding how best to examine the largest area of Narragansett Bay for a limited amount of cost.

“What we would really like is lots of data points at lots of times, but how do you accomplish that?” asks Vincent. “A nitrate sensor is thousands of dollars. The goal is going to be, let’s take our existing sensors and new ones coming, augment the buoys anchored permanently, but also get mobile sensors out there collecting data.

“You can envision that when a buoy tells us, ‘Hey, something is happening right now,’ we put an autonomous vehicle out there that drives around for a week, and guess what? It measures how that harmful algae bloom formed, how big it spread and what happened to it.”

Vincent expects instruments to be in the water by the summer, when undergraduate and graduate students will play crucial roles in making the Narragansett Bay Observatory operational.

“This project is too much for one person to pull off, and one of our objectives is workforce development. One of the ways to do that is to bring students in here to get real-world experience,” says Vincent. “This is real engineering, real computer science. They will have to write software, and it is going to have to work. The stuff we are doing is not a problem they have been given in a course.”

For more information about the consortium, visit https://web.uri.edu/rinsfepscor/

This release was written by Shaun Kirby, communications coordinator for RI C-AIM and Rhode Island EPSCoR.