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Forecasting the Next Deadly Wave RUGGED MOBILE TECHNOLOGY HELPS RESEARCHERS TRACK AND PREDICT DANGEROUS CURRENTS

Michigan Technological University is using Algiz rugged tablets to gather underwater data along the coast of Lake Michigan: accurate data collection in rugged conditions, real-time processing and recording, and all-day research without interruption.

Challenge

Collect and process real-time data for up to a full day in challenging field environments. 

Solution

Task-specific software paired with Algiz 7 and Algiz 10X rugged tablets. 

Results

Accurate data collection in rugged conditions, real-time processing and recording, and all-day research collection without interruption

Guy Meadows and his colleagues at the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University are using Algiz 7 and Algiz 10X rugged tablets to gather underwater data along the coast of Lake Michigan, where 50 people drowned last year in near-shore accidents. 

Chasing storms

Meadows’ team, which includes satellite remote sensing researchers from Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI), heads directly into storms that hit Lake Michigan’s shorelines so they can track dangerous currents before, during and after they develop. 

“Once we get to the beach where the storm is expected, we measure the shape of the underwater beach in its pre-storm condition. Using drifter floats and other tools, we then map the position and strength of the dangerous currents as the waves occur. Then as the storm passes by, we go out on the water to collect post-storm information on how the beach has changed,” said Meadows. 

The team uses a 17-foot open boat that houses down-looking sonar and a GPS system. Every second, they collect data on latitude and longitude, depth flow, temperature and other metrics through their Handheld Algiz 7 rugged tablet computer. 

“We’re out there in 3- to 4-foot waves in an open boat, and it’s often raining, so you can imagine how much we appreciate having a waterproof device like the Algiz 7 that we can place with confidence in the bottom of the boat,” said Meadows. 

The recently upgraded Algiz 7 is now powered by an Intel Atom 1.6 GHz processor and packs a massive 128 GB SSD and 4 GB of DDR3 RAM into its 2.42 pound package. The hot-swappable 2600 mAh dual battery pack enables Meadows and his team to keep collecting data all day long, changing batteries as needed without shutting down. 

The Algiz 7 used by Meadows’ team runs a software program called Undersee Explorer that maps the underwater bottom in real time. “As the data flows into the Algiz 7, it’s converted into a GIS type of map that we can look at as we go along. It’s pretty slick!” said Meadows. 

Meadows has actually been collecting data on rip currents since 2002. Back then, his team relied on standard consumer laptops to collect all the data — a practice he wouldn’t recommend. “The laptops took an amazing beating,” he said. “The top opens and flops around when the boat is bouncing around. They’re cumbersome and they’re fragile at the same time.” 

In comparison, Meadows said, “Having a small computer like the Algiz 7 that’s easy to use and rugged is a real asset.” Because the 7-inch widescreen touch display features MaxView™ technology, which provides spectacular brightness in outdoor conditions, he said, “We can see the mapping data with absolute clarity, even on a sunny day.” 

Another day at the beach

Another part of the overall research project, which is sponsored by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, involves confirming the location of rip currents identified by commercial satellites at several popular beaches along the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Using a remote-controlled boat for shallow waters and a larger boat for the rest, researchers are mapping beach areas before and after rip currents develop. By confirming the accuracy of the satellite data, the team is moving another step closer to predicting when and where dangerous near-shore currents will develop. 

The satellite data is loaded into the Algiz 7 through the Undersee Explorer software, which enables the team to navigate to the right spot. Once there, they record the depth of the water and create an updated map based on the depth findings they receive in real-time. 

One key to the project’s success is the team’s ability to record an entire day’s worth of data without interruption — a task made possible by the Algiz 7. In the past, standard consumer laptops were able to collect and process only a limited amount of data, which then had to be entered into a desktop computer back at the lab for processing and clear viewing. 

“The Algiz 7 is able to map rip currents in real time, so we can see right then if we’ve found the current we’re looking for. We don’t have to wait until we drive 500 miles back to the lab to find out if we’ve collected the right data,” said Nate Jessee, an assistant research scientist with MTRI. 

Jessee and the rest of his team used the Algiz 10X — which offers a larger, 10-inch screen — for the test they completed most recently, at a beach along Lake Michigan’s north coast. 

“Honestly, we like both of the devices,” Jessee said. “For us, it’s worry-free computing when you know you can drop the device or it can get rained on or splashed, and you’re still going to get the data you need without interruption.” 

Forecasting the future

Meadows and his team have found that medium waves and their associated rip currents are the most dangerous. And they were the first to discover that rip currents migrate through the day — meaning that a beach that’s safe in the morning may threaten lives in the afternoon. 

In the final piece of MTRI’s research project, those facts and the rest of the information gathered from the two field components will be used to make practical safety improvements to the parks along Lake Michigan. Working with the Michigan DEQ, Meadows and his team will develop procedures to provide better, more accurate warnings about dangerous water conditions. 

“We are learning from satellite imagery that certain beaches have rip currents in exactly the same places, so maybe you move those beaches,” said Meadows. “Other places are very dynamic, with rip currents one day and not the next, so then we need to figure out how to better convey that information to people on the beach.” 

Eventually, Meadows envisions an automated radar system, mounted on poles, that would watch over each beach, sensing the development of dangerous currents and setting off alarms or even sending text messages to convince people to get out, and stay out, of the water until conditions become safer. 

Meadows is optimistic about the research and the likelihood that, someday soon, dangerous near-shore currents will be identified earlier and more accurately, and communicated clearly — so fewer people will lose their lives on the shores of Lake Michigan.