Washington: Scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have developed low cost sensors that may one day save lives by giving advance warning of deadly landslides in at-risk areas around the world.
The wireless sensors, developed using technology found in cell phones, are being tested and have been installed around an active landslide zone in the Monte Sano State Park in US.
A team from the Atmospheric Science Department at The University of Alabama in Huntsville is studying the sensors to see whether they can provide useful information about soil stability and the likelihood of an impending landslide.
In addition to weather instruments, the sensors use off-the-shelf technology that was developed for other uses, such as motion detectors that also are used in cell phones and in robotics.
The sensor that tells when the soil is so saturated by rain that it may become unstable was developed for irrigation systems, to tell when a field has received enough water.
The sensors connect to the Internet using inexpensive cell phone connections, so scientists can monitor their instruments without needing to either run wires into remote areas or have someone visit the sensor boxes regularly.
Eric Anderson, a research associate in UAH's Earth System Science Center, went to work with NASA which gave him access to Karthik Srinivasan, a University Space Research Association (USRA) scientist who invented the wireless sensors for NASA's SERVIR programme.
The sensors were created as a low-cost tool for calibrating an airborne instrument that measures soil moisture. They could be moved from spot to spot as needed to gather data on the ground at the same time the airborne instrument was overhead.
After seeing the sensors in action, Anderson recognised the potential value something similar might have in studying and monitoring landslides.
He took his idea to Dr Udaysankar Nair, an associate professor of atmospheric science. Nair and Anderson wrote a proposal that led to a USD 56,000 grant from UAH's University Research Infrastructure Initiative.
UAH graduate students Aaron Kaulfus and Brian Freitag field tested the sensor network and are testing computer models that could be linked to the network to provide the capability to predict landslides.
Because cell phone service is now available in many undeveloped areas where regular hard-wire telephone lines were too expensive to install (and satellite phone service is available almost everywhere), these sensors could have use far beyond monitoring landslides, researchers said.