GIS Mapping Peter O'Connor

Robotics Project Benefits Frederick City

Hood College’s Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies and department of computer science have collaborated on an environmental science project for the City of Frederick using robotics and geographic information systems.

“We were contacted by the City of Frederick,” said Drew Ferrier, professor of biology and director of the coastal studies program. “They wanted to know if their reservoir was filling in with sediment, so it would be unable to hold as much water as when it was built. They asked us if we had a way of taking those kinds of measurements.

“The Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies was able to collaborate with the computer science department to develop this project and allow us to take those measurements, so we can find out how much the volume has changed over the last almost 100 years.”

Together, Ferrier; George Dimitoglou, associate professor of computer science; Randy Smith, GIS specialist; and Peter O’Connor and Stephan Auderset, computer science graduate students, took on the task of mapping Fishing Creek Reservoir in Frederick to determine what its restoration needs are.

They bought a four-foot-long, fiberglass boat on eBay. Originally built to be a remote control model boat, they repurposed it, cutting holes for three compartments for equipment and adding a stand for a GPS and compass. Dimitoglou and O’Connor were primarily responsible for outfitting the boat with the technology, programming it and testing it.

The steering, motors and lithium battery are in the back compartment. The middle compartment holds the memory card and the electronics—the brains that coordinate GPS and communications. There are two computers in the compartment; one manages the movement of the boat, and one manages the observations and sensor payload. Wire storage is in the front compartment with the sonar sensor underneath, and the GPS component and compass that connect to the electronics are in a raised box at the front of the boat. Plastic covers are screwed in to seal the compartments and make them watertight. The electronics are all open source.

“The boat is an autonomous surface vehicle, which means that it has a computer and has all the brains to be able to go out in the water and, after we program a very specific route, just follow it and perform the observations,” said Dimitoglou.

The team tested the boat at Hood’s Huntsinger Aquatic Center for sensor readings and calibration and at Little Seneca Lake in Montgomery County to navigate and take observations and compare the results with the U.S. Geological Survey measurements to make sure the boat was performing accurately.

After the boat passed the tests, the team began executing the project at Fishing Creek Reservoir, a 10.5-acre pond. Dimitoglou and his team programmed the boat to travel to 90 points along the edge back and forth both directions, forming a grid path. The boat traveled at around three feet per second, taking a measurement every second. The data collection was complete after approximately four hours and 10,000 measurements.

GIS specialist Randy Smith took the data gathered by the boat and created a cartography map of the bottom of the reservoir. He then used data from the original reservoir construction drawings and was able to do the computations to determine changes in volume.

With that done, there’s only one step left in the project.

“We’re going to complete the project by writing a study,” said Dimitoglou. “We are going to give it to the city, and they will be able to decide if they need to do any kind of remediation.”

According to Ferrier, this is one of the newest and best projects that exemplifies what the Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies does. The center tries to bring together different disciplines to deal with coastal and watershed issues, whether scientific, social or historic issues.

“Our technology has a very useful niche in that this type of boat can be used in instances where municipalities need to know whether their small stormwater management ponds, for instance, are filling with sediment to the point that they need to be maintained, dredged and regenerated,” said Ferrier. “I’m hoping that those municipalities will get in touch with us. We would be happy to work with them on it.”

The current boat measures depth and water temperature, but Dimitoglou said its capabilities are expandable. For example, for future work, they are considering outfitting it with water quality sensors and even pairing the boat with drone fly-over observations.

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