UCD Case Study

Public Sector

Ocean wave sensors go mobile for University College Dublin

Ocean wave sensors go mobile for University College Dublin

  • Sensors equipped with eir Mobile SIMs act as virtual ocean buoys to measure wave strength
  • Real-time seismographic data opens the door for commercial applications for scientific research

An innovative SFI-funded research program at University College Dublin is leveraging eir Mobile, eir’s mobile network, to bring new capabilities to earth science researchers in the lab.

The ambitious Wave-Obs project, led by UCD Professor Chris Bean, is aiming to measure the force and location of the most energetic Atlantic Ocean waves off Ireland’s West Coast. Powerful waves generate subtle seismological vibrations which can be detected by land-based sensors. But until now the only means of collecting data from these remote sensors was by physically traveling to each site in the sensor network and manually downloading data recorded.

Now a novel approach being explored by Prof. Bean, his colleague Dr. Martin Möllhoff and the Wave-Obs team at UCD. This involves connecting the seismometers directly to 3G routers equipped with eir Mobile SIMs, allowing data to travel across the mobile network, straight to scientists in the lab.

“We need to determine the temporal and spatial distribution of the largest waves in this part of the ocean, and there are exciting practical applications in everything from marine safety to assessing potential sites for renewable energy systems that use wave power,” Prof. Bean said. “Ocean buoys are the traditional way to measure wave height, but they’re expensive to deploy. The idea is to create a complementary system to the existing ocean infrastructure, multiplying the effectiveness of the buoy network by using these land-based sensors. It is a great deal cheaper and more effective to monitor wave energy through an onshore detection network rather than deploying additional buoys.”

In addition to the SIMs, eir Mobile is providing UCD with a Managed VPN service, which provides a secure connection for data transfer and private network addressing between seismometers and the UCD network. This effectively turns eir Mobile’s nationwide mobile coverage into a private Wi-Fi network for UCD Managed VPN SIM cards.  The simple point-and-click functionality allows UCD to order, configure and deploy new SIMs across its seismometer network, opening the potential for real-time data collection from its instruments in the field, anywhere in Ireland.


Mobile communications and “big data” for sensors

Sensors have been tapped as one of the most influential developments in the technology landscape since the rise of the Internet in the 1990s. While the main scientific objective of the Wave-Obs project is to develop an accurate and affordable onshore observational system, there are potentially far-reaching real-world applications, including assessing site suitability for renewable energy systems harnessing wave power.

Commercial applications, Prof. Bean explained, will require something that only a mobile-enabled sensor network can deliver: real-time data from the field, allowing researchers to ensure that sensors are active and recording data.

“To bring scientific research to a useful product, the data must be real-time, leveraging wireless communications,” Prof. Bean said. “This instrumentation is often in isolated locations where it must be sited for sound scientific reasons. When there is no other communications infrastructure available, mobile-connected sensors allow us to test the health state of the system remotely. We had hurricane-force winds in Donegal over the winter; if the only way to check the health of our sensors is by visiting them in person, there is a significant time cost there, and potentially a scientific cost if data was not being recorded.”

Prof. Bean also pointed to the wider applicability of remote sensors of all kinds for scientific research.

“There is a move towards ubiquitous sensing: the idea of using lots of relatively cheap sensors. Communicating back to laboratories from remote sensors in the field is going to be a huge growth area, as we move to more and more data. We’re already in the ‘big data’ world with personal devices. If we want to go the next step with sensors in the field, we have the issue of getting the data back from those sensors in real-time, and affordable mobile communication systems like the system we’re testing with eir Mobile are the way that will happen.”


A Reliable Partnership

The relatively low cost of mobile SIMs, the security of the Managed VPN service and the reliability of eir Mobile as a communications partner are all important factors for the UCD team. While it’s technically possible for the team to develop their own communications network, partnering made the most sense in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

“Building your own communications network to support a project like this is possible, but there would be a huge overhead involved, including people’s time, and if something goes wrong with your own system, it starts to cost you a fortune in time and equipment,” Prof. Bean said. “It absolutely makes sense to entrust the mobile communications to a reliable partner like eir Mobile who can deliver much better levels of uptime than your own homemade system, and who has expertise in this area.”