‘GatorByte’ to detect water quality less expensively – and at different places, times

Clint Thompson Aquaculture, Florida

University of Florida photo.

By: Brad Buck, 813-757-2224, bradbuck@ufl.edu, 352-875-2641 (cell)

A water-quality buoy called ‘GatorByte” might help resource managers monitor water quality over space and time – all for as little as $1,500.

As it stands, such sensors are typically mounted at one location, and they give you data about water quality only at that one location, say UF/IFAS researchers. GatorByte can be used to map water quality at different places in a stream or river, or it can monitor water quality at different times in a particular water body.

Eban Bean, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering (ABE), is working on developing the device with Piyush Agade, a doctoral student in ABE.

“We can put these devices into the top of a watershed and allow stormwater flow to carry the GatorByte buoys downstream and essentially map the water quality in an urban watershed,” Bean said. “At the end of the storm, we can then go to the bottom of the watershed, pick up those units again for the next deployment.”

“The system aims to be as flexible and serviceable as possible, even for users with limited experience with programming and/or electronics,” Bean said. “We have incorporated GPS and cellular communication into it, to make tracking and recovering the unit possible.”

In their preliminary experiments, UF/IFAS scientists monitored four basic indicators of water quality: temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and conductivity, Agade said. In the future, they plan to incorporate sensors for other things that impact water quality, such as nitrate, ammonia and turbidity.

Data from GatorByte is sent to the cloud in real time using a cellular signal. It also includes on-board data storage for backup if there is no cellular signal.

“Using water-quality and location data, we hope to allow water resource managers to quickly locate sources of pollution – or at least identify areas that need further investigation,” Agade said. “Moreover, we plan on making the software and hardware design available to public for use and alteration.”

GatorByte comes with a micro-controller (the brains of the device) cloud-based data storage, web and mobile applications to visualize the data.

Bean and Agade have tested GatoryByte at Hogtown Creek and Lake Wauberg – both in Gainesville, Florida. Next, they’d like to test the device in a place like the Suwannee River. Researchers say GatorByte likely can be used to monitor water quality around Florida, and for that matter, across the United States.

The scientists were scheduled to present preliminary results of GatorByte data to the World Environmental & Water Resources Congress in May. Because of the pandemic, the conference was delayed. But their preliminary paper is available if you contact Bean at ezbean@ufl.edu.

Our reliance on fresh water underscores the need to protect these resources. In the United States, almost 68% of freshwater demand is supplied by rivers or streams, UF/IFAS scientists say. On top of being rare and valuable, freshwater sources have also struggled with water-quality issues. Industrial effluents, algal blooms, pesticide and fertilizer runoff contribute to water-quality woes, Bean said. Additionally, addressing concerns like how to get rid of sulfur in water well is vital to maintaining the overall quality and availability of freshwater.

Moreover, because a rain event is not confined to one small area, pinpointing the exact location of the source of pollution becomes increasingly difficult, particularly with non-point sources of pollution, Bean said.

“If toxic pollutants are a concern, you must be able locate the source of pollution in a timely manner so the effects of pollutants on the environment can be managed as soon as possible,” he said.

A native of India, a country facing huge challenges with water quality and availability, Agade has extra incentive to conduct this research.

“This problem is a global one … and I hope my efforts will help save lives and make life better for the rest of the people in India and worldwide,” Agade said. 

Watch this video to see Bean explain GatorByte, or go more in depth with this video.