Developing a molecular watchdog for Narragansett Bay waters

Dr. Harold ‘Bud’ Vincent, associate professor of Ocean Engineering at URI, stands before one of the myriad devices which will be launched this summer as part of the RI C-AIM initiative to collect data about Narragansett Bay.

Researchers developing ‘Bay Observatory’ through RI C-AIM project to better measure ecological changes

Dr. Harold ‘Bud’ Vincent, Associate Professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of Rhode Island, stands before a sleek, solar-powered buoy which looks more at home as a satellite in space than floating in Narragansett Bay. The machine is one of many which in the coming months will collect data for a new ‘Narragansett Bay Observatory.”

The observatory is being developed as part of a larger initiative called RI C-AIM, or the Rhode Island Consortium for Coastal Ecology Assessment, Innovation and Modeling. Through the project, funded by a $19 million grant from the National Science Foundation, scientists are creating a detailed data collection and interpretation system, research from which will help predict the effects of sea level rise and other climate issues, as well as study human impacts on coastal ecosystems.

Vincent is working side-by-side with researchers from eight other institutions across Rhode Island to develop a system of sensors which will measure for chemicals—such as nitrogen or phosphorus—that are rich food sources for potentially harmful algae and phytoplankton.

But what is unique about the sensors being developed for the Narragansett Bay observatory? Each will be programmed to ‘communicate’ data about those chemicals between them, creating a real-time response network for scientists to help communities and businesses respond in the event of harmful algae blooms or unusual population shifts in fish and plant species.

“This is going to be a totally new type of data that hasn’t been done before,” explains Vincent. “It will provide an opportunity to gather new kinds of scientific information.”

That information will ultimately be utilized by state and local leaders to help protect community assets, and also inform workforce and economic development programs throughout Rhode Island.

Vincent and his colleagues at institutions throughout Rhode Island are now developing a design plan which inventories existing data collection instruments. They are also reaching out to vendors from across the nation to create new sensor devices, from stationary buoys to autonomous vehicles.

“When we design the buoys,” he notes, “we want to make sure that when another researcher says, ‘I have this sensor I want to try out in a real environment’, we have thought ahead and architected our system so that a year or two from now when they come with these new sensors, it is easy for us to connect them to a buoy and get it into a real-world test environment.”

Such an expansive project does not come without challenges, however, foremost of which is deciding how best to examine the largest area of Narragansett Bay, for a limited cost.

“What we would really like is lots of lots of [data] points at lots of times, but how do you accomplish that?” says Vincent. “A nitrate sensor is thousands of dollars. The goal is going to be, let’s take our existing sensors and new ones coming, augment the buoys anchored permanently, but also get mobile sensors out there collecting data.”

“You can envision that when a buoy tells us, ‘hey something is happening right now’, we put an autonomous vehicle out there which drives around for a week, and guess what? It measures how that harmful algae bloom formed, how big it spread, and what happened to it.”

Vincent expects instruments to be in the water by the summer, at which time undergraduate and graduate students will play a crucial role in making the Narragansett Bay Observatory operational.

“This [project] is too much for one person to pull off, and one of our objectives is workforce development. One of the ways to do workforce development is to bring students in here to get real-world experience,” the associate professor emphasizes. “This is real engineering, real computer science. They will have to write software, and it is going to have to work.”

“The stuff we are doing is not a problem they have been given in a course.”

For more information about the RI C-AIM project, visit

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