Andrew Tinka: Floating Sensors Network

Floating Sensors Network

A group of motorized drifters that measure and transmit physical and chemical conditions within a flow of water to create a situation awareness map across space and time.

A group of motorized drifters that measure and transmit physical and chemical conditions within a flow of water to create a situation awareness map across space and time. Many parts of the world are confronted with increasingly difficult challenges when it comes to water management. These challenges—which range from droughts to flooding to water quality to resource allocation—are most effectively addressed when water managers have accurate diagnostic data of real-time conditions. For management efforts such as maintaining the freshwater channel in a large river delta, as well as in emergency situations such as a levee failure, flood, or contaminant spill, is important to understand “where the water is going.”


Today’s monitoring infrastructure is not capable of tracking all of the water conditions that are of interest to managers and regulatory agencies. While permanently placed sensors are important water monitoring tools, they cannot be placed everywhere on a large complex network of water, and they don’t track water as it moves. For breached levee systems, permanent sensors cannot track where the water goes after it flows past the breach. Real-time floating monitoring devices could help agencies with more immediate response and efficient containment of disasters.


The Floating Sensor Network is a platform of up to 100 motorized sensor drifters that are communication-enabled to transmit through the cellular and the radio network, equipped with GPS, temperature, flow rate, salinity, and contaminant sensors information across an expansive flow of water. Each drifter is a cylinder 5″ in diameter and 17″ tall that floats on its vertical axis and communicates via cell phone and short-range radio. The real‐time information from multiple sensors is combined to provide a situation awareness map—like a Google traffic map—of the entire system, including how fast the water is moving, and where it is going. This network gives water managers a way to sample large areas more effectively, and the “particle outcome” (where the sensor ends up) is especially valuable when responders are concerned about the movement of water or contaminants. 

The Floating Sensor Network began as an environmental monitoring project with the goal of being able to provide real-time maps of salinity and temperature in the Sacramento River Delta, which is of great interest to farmers and municipalities. More recently, the Network as been studied for application in emergency response scenarios.

“It started as ‘let’s monitor the Delta.’ Now we’re realizing that this technology could also be really helpful for guiding responses to catastrophes. For both types of application, the Floating Sensor Network can provide important data on-demand to those monitoring and making decisions about flows of water.” —Alex Bayen, Principle Investigator, Floating Sensor Network, UC Berkeley


The Floating Sensor Network Team envisions drifters being used strategically wherever water flows. Their real-time monitoring capabilities and wireless communication could significantly improve both the efficiency of water management as well as the immediacy, effectiveness, and level of response following a water-related disaster. They can also help resolve conflicts over water pollution by providing unbiased and accurate data regarding the sources and flows of contaminants.

Because the drifter platform provides a unique capability that can resolve numerous difficulties in assessing effective water management, the development and operations of the platform will be likely be financed by agencies, companies, stakeholders, or interest groups (with possibly even conflicting interests) who need these measurement capabilities for water systems. The initial funding for the Floating Sensor Network came from the California Department of Water Resources. Moving forward, the Floating Sensor Network Team is looking for partners, institutional support, and funds to further develop their platform and demonstrate the technology through additional pilot studies, as well as to help fuse the data collected from the drifter platform with hydrodynamic models.