Data buoys in Strait to provide real-time marine data

By Tom Callis
Peninsula Daily News

A Navy-funded pilot project being tested in the North Olympic Peninsula's backyard is intended to improve both national security and environmental research.

The "floating area network," developed by the Port Townsend-based company Intellicheck Mobilisa, is designed to use buoys to keep an eye on ports and shipping lanes while at the same time collecting real-time data on environmental conditions in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.

The buoys are made to help national security by being able to carry sensors that can detect radiation from dirty bombs on passing ships and infrared cameras that can be controlled remotely to catch people illegally entering U.S. waters, said Intellicheck Mobilisa project manager Jim Rabb.

They are also designed, with help from the University of Washington's applied physics lab, to be outfitted with sensors that transmit data on the levels of dissolved oxygen, salinity, algae, among other environmental indicators to university researchers and possibly by the end of the year, even local marine life centers.

After two years of research and development and $10 million in federal dollars, five buoys with only the environmental sensors have been deployed.

They are near Marrowstone Island and Fort Worden State Park, near Edmonds, in the north Hood Canal, and most recently, one was set up Sept. 4 north of Sequim Bay.

The environmental data collected by these buoys can be found in real-time on the Web site, http://buoy.icmobil.com, which was developed by Intellicheck Mobilisa.

Next, Rabb said the company plans to deploy an environmental buoy in Port Angeles Harbor, not far from the pier of Rayonier Inc.'s former mill site, by the end of November.

That buoy also may be able to detect oil spills in its vicinity. Similar buoys are planned in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo; and another off of Foulweather Bluff at the north end of Hood Canal in Kitsap County.

While each buoy deployed is designed to host sensors for national security and environmental purposes, Rabb said not every one of them will serve a national security role and there are no plans to outfit the deployed and soon-to-be deployed buoys with any of the security features.

The environmental data provided by the buoys provide researchers with real-time data that they have lacked until now, said Jan Newton, UW principal oceanographer, who added that would be "safe to say" that the project could double their understanding of the health of Puget Sound and the Strait.

"We need to understand more about this water world than what we do," she said.

"It is the fundamental data that has been lacking.

"We really have to learn the basics."

Newton said the buoys are also "critical for understanding climate change," and will be used to help assess acidification in the Puget Sound and Strait.

Buoys for security purposes, if the Navy continues to support the project, would most likely be deployed near the large ports in the Puget Sound, Rabb said.

The likely locations off the Peninsula's shores to host the security buoys, he said, would be near Indian Island and the eastbound shipping lane near the mouth of the Elwha River.

But those decisions are up to the Navy to make, Rabb said.

Navy project manager Lance Flitter said no decisions have been made as to what security features will be used, how many buoys will host them or where they will be deployed.

"We are exploring [the possibilities] at this point," he said.

Flitter referred to the project as still being in the research and development phase, and said that not all of the questions as to how effective the security features would be on a buoy have been answered.

But, if the project is a success, Flitter said it could significantly increase the region's ability to detect threats before they reach populated areas.

"It's a cost-effective way to get site awareness out away from the land," he said, "without having to deploy a ship or an aircraft to carry those sensors."

Flitter said that the Strait and Puget Sound were selected to host this pilot project because of their proximity to Intellicheck Mobilisa's home office.

But he couldn't say if the national security side of the project would become fully operational or if it would be expanded elsewhere.

"Our purpose is just testing to see if the system works or not," he said.

"If ever a program of record might be fielded, who knows where.

"Quite possibly, anywhere along our coastal waters might be a suitable location."

Newton said the university may have to seek other funding sources if Navy support for the project dries up, to keep using Intellicheck Mobilisa's buoys to receive environmental data.

Flitter said research and development for the project began about two years ago, but the "original project goes back a little further" to 2005 when Intellicheck Mobilisa made an unsolicited proposal to the Navy.

Newton said the UW was brought on board about the same time when Rep. Norm Dicks D-Belfair -- of the 6th Congressional District, which includes the Peninslula -- pushed for the project to go beyond national security to also include environmental research.

But how far the project will be developed and how many buoys will be deployed depends upon how much money the Navy is willing to spend on it, Rabb said.

With another $4.5 million that the Navy is sending Intellicheck Mobilisa's way, that support seems to not be fading quite yet.

Those funds, which the company was notified had been allocated to the project on Wednesday, would allow the project to continue for another 18 to 30 months, give the company funds continue to develop the wireless network that would make the security features possible, and deploy anywhere between three and 10 additional buoys, Rabb said.

In the meantime, the Intellicheck Mobilisa is expanding the environmental educational aspect of the project.

The company and the UW applied physics lab are working with both the Arthur D. Feiro Marine Life Center in Port Angeles and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center to install interactive displays allowing visitors to look at environmental data and control short-range video cameras on the buoys.

The cameras that are installed are for educational purposes, and not security, Rabb said.

He said they can clearly see objects up to 1,000 feet away; the buoys are deployed at least 2,000 feet off shore, he said.

Newton said those displays, which would be donated to the science centers, may be ready around the end of the year.

Chrissy McLean, Port Townsend Marine Science Center's marine program coordinator, referred to the displays as a much needed educational tool.

"People can more than look at information but understand what they are seeing and why it is important," she said, "and why it matters to look at water quality."

Bob Campbell, Arthur D. Feiro Marine Life Center coordinator, said that such a display would help the center further promote "citizen science."

"It's just one more chance for the public to become knowledgeable," he said. "The big part of our thrust is educational outreach," he added.

"We are hoping that people understand more of what's going on around them."

Newton said the real-time data has also been useful to her own students.

"When you show the [real-time] data, it takes a different meaning than when you are scribbling it on the board," she said.

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Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at tom.callis@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: October 04. 2009 10:22PM
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