Text Size
September 27, 2012

Rebecca Strecker
NASA Public Affairs Office
Stennis Space Center, MS 39529-6000
(228) 688-3249

NASA DRIFTER Project Proves Its Worth in Hurricane Isaac

Scientists at NASA's Stennis Space Center have a good picture of the impact of storm surges on area waters as Hurricane Isaac lumbered ashore in late August, thanks to a pair of prototype environmental monitoring buoys designed as easy-to-build school projects.
A monitoring buoy – or DRIFTER – anchored to a pole just offshore in Mississippi's Heron Bay, almost due south of Stennis, transmitted information about water temperature and conductivity throughout the storm, except when it was completely submerged. Once waters receded, the DRIFTER resumed transmission of data that enabled scientists to calculate how Isaac's storm surge affected levels of fresh and salt water in the area.
A second DRIFTER anchored just off of Half Moon Island, about four miles south-southeast of Heron Bay in Louisiana waters, transmitted information until the storm disrupted service from its cell tower. Once the skies cleared, the DRIFTER began sending data once more.
"The DRIFTERs are inexpensive, but obviously rugged," said Duane Armstrong, chief of the Stennis Applied Science & Technology Project Office (ASTPO), which designed and built the two DRIFTER prototypes. "It's amazing how well they endured days of hurricane and tropical storm conditions, even being submerged for hours by the storm surge, and were still able to collect and transmit valuable information about the storm."
This project began as an effort to help Gulf Coast oyster fishermen who were dealing with the effects of fresh water intrusion resulting from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 2011 flooding of the Mississippi River.
ASTPO reached out to Mississippi oyster fishermen to see if NASA's Earth science expertise could help. The fishermen asked for help monitoring the temperature and salinity of leased waters. If that could be accomplished, oyster fishermen could gauge when they needed to harvest their beds or take other actions, such as moving the beds to avoid contamination.
"It's difficult to accurately measure salinity of coastal waters using satellites," Armstrong explained, "and there simply are not enough sensors in the water to monitor local conditions."
Each DRIFTER is about 18 inches high and constructed out of PVC pipe and simple electronics. It includes a GPS receiver to monitor the position of the DRIFTER, a cell phone modem to transmit data to a website, a solar panel and battery to supply power over extended periods, and a simple computer to configure and control the device. Sensors collect data on water temperature and conductivity, which is used to calculate salinity.
"We tried to design something for the hobbyist," Armstrong said. "No special skills are required. You can build one with about $500 of parts. NASA provides instructions and even the software needed. The DRIFTER provides a lot of opportunities for students and teachers to explore aspects of science and engineering, and even participate in NASA scientific research. Simply register your DRIFTER on our web site and provide its Twitter handle and NASA will retrieve and analyze your data, map the location of your DRIFTER, and make the data available to the public."
Armstrong is hopeful funding can be established so local schools can build DRIFTERs and deploy them as real-time, real-life science projects.
For information about Stennis Applied Science, visit: http://science.ssc.nasa.gov/.
For information about Stennis, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis.

Related Multimedia:


- end -

text-only version of this release

Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator