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5 October, 2006 - 16:19 By Staff Reporter

Wave of the future: BT's wireless buoys could predict tsunamis

Research with the relatively modest aim of measuring Norfolk coastal erosion has led to a potentially ground-breaking discovery – the ability to predict tsunamis.The potentially massive discovery was made during the course of a DTI-sponsored research project, led by BT’s pervasive ICT research centre at Adastral Park in Ipswich and involving an oceanographer from the University of East Anglia.

A network of floating devices uses wireless technology to monitor seabed movement in real-time and send the data back to a control centre.

Unlike much of the current technology used to measure factors such as wave height and length, the devices are relatively cheap to produce and run.

This means larger numbers of them could be used to monitor an area – giving much greater detail and accuracy. And BT has developed the first successful communication between these kinds of devices out at sea.

BT has not yet held detailed discussions with relevant environmental agencies about the technology's potential.

Jane Tateson, a senior researcher at BT, explained: “The devices measure water pressure, which gives an indication of wave height and length, which can warn you if there is a tsunami wave.

“Sensor devices used to monitor tsunamis are generally on the seabed meaning a team of specialist divers is needed to work on them.

“We discovered that radio communication between buoys alone can give detailed information about sea state.

“This means that we now have the technology to develop even simpler devices to characterise processes in the sea.

“Devices with only a floating component are particularly desirable as they become much cheaper and easier to maintain.”

As well as measuring wave height and length, the devices also measure temperature, current speed and direction, salt levels and sediment concentration, using radio signals to talk to each other.

Working with an oceanographer from UEA and the DTI, the team from BT was looking at how sensors can work together in a pervasive computing environment.

The floating sensor devices were deployed off the coast at Scroby Sands in Norfolk to monitor the movement of sand.

Tateson said: “Typically, oceanographic equipment costs tens of thousands of pounds.

“The idea was that if we could develop sensors which were much cheaper, we could use many more of them to get a much more detailed view of the area. You can then build up a picture of activity to help you predict what is likely to happen in the future.

“This could help local authorities with flood prediction and flood defence planning.

“BT is developing ubiquitous computing based around small low-powered devices. Although each device is simple and cheap, collectively they create autonomous, adaptive, always-available technology to enhance people’s lives and work.

“We are working with top universities to create solutions in the areas of environmental monitoring, telecare and infrastructure integrity assurance, amongst others.”

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