UWindsor undergrad cuts research costs with DIY wear sensors

UWindsor undergrad cuts research costs with DIY wear sensors

Ben Chettle, a third-year student at UWindsor, helps attach one of his pressure sensors to a concrete block to keep it submerged. Photo: Ben Shettle

by Jack Armstrong

A graduate student from the University of Windsor is busy pulling handmade appliances from lakes in the small town of Ontario.

The devices, strapped to concrete blocks and submerged nearly three feet underwater, are helping student Abigail Carswell and other researchers understand how wake boats are eroding the shoreline in Muskoka Lakes, an area 145 miles north of Toronto.

Called transducers, these devices usually cost more than $7,000. But undergraduate Ben Chittle at the University of Windsor earns it about $200.

Carswell said the devices measure the pressure of waves hitting the shore. Coastal erosion disrupts ecosystems, inundating water and threatening sidewalks and other man-made structures. Understanding how waves affect the shoreline is key to combating erosion.

“The interesting thing about this research is that coastal erosion is known for certain when it comes to wind activity and storm activity, but there isn’t much about ship activity,” Carswell said.

The research was aided by the DIY Chittle power adapters which consist of a PVC pipe three inches thick and 10 inches long and covered at both ends. A pressure sensor is mounted on top of the cap and filled with epoxy to protect it from water. I’ve built 14 so far.

As a computer science student, working with hardware is something new to him.

“Usually in computer science, you’re dealing a little bit more with the software side of things,” Chettle said. “I really enjoyed, once I really got into this project, it was the electrical side of things – actually working with the hardware and building these little computers.”

Chittle, a third-year student, began working with UWindsor Coastal Research Group in high school. He quickly demonstrated his ability to program and develop environmental equipment, said Chris Hauser, UWindsor’s dean of science.

It’s a skill that paid off. Chittle’s Houser’s lower cost can help cover a wider field of research.

“I’m one of the only coastal geomorphologists left in the area, and that means there are a lot of coastlines,” Hauser said. “There is a lot to do. And if the tools are too expensive, I can’t get to the right level.”

Carswell uses the data produced by the transformers to determine the amount of erosion caused by the various vessels in the Muskoka Lakes.

“A lot of people here own boats or rent boats, and not all of them are necessarily properly educated about the techniques of driving boats near the beaches,” she said.

Understanding what causes erosion can help prevent it, Hauser said.

But unlike the effect of winds and storms, there is a lack of data on how the wake of the boats affects the shoreline.

“We really want to give local coast managers and interest groups access to data, specifically if boats wake up, so they can use that information to report on ship operating restrictions,” said Alex Smith, a postdoctoral research fellow associated with UWindsor’s Coastal Research. Collection. He is interested in improving access to technology.

Muskoka people are grateful that researchers are trying to understand how their ships affect the local ecosystem.

“They are very grateful … they are proud of the fact that they are trying to make some changes here in terms of policies regarding ships,” said Carswell. “Ships… can be enjoyed and should be enjoyed on the lake, but I think people need to know the power they have in their hands while driving.”

Chittle began working on transducers after Houser sent him a paper on DIY pressure sensors published in The Journal of Coastal Research in 2020. He details the sensor plans and notes that they compare favorably with much more expensive commercial models.

Carswell said the data collected from the devices has not been processed, so it is difficult to say how effective they are. If they can perform as well as the transformers in the study they rely on, they will likely perform very well.

Ben Chettle, a third-year student at UWindsor University, poses with one of his homemade water wave sensors, which will be used to better understand the impact of wake boats on coastal erosion. Photo: Ben Shettle

It’s a work in progress – so there are some limitations. The biggest downside so far, Chettle said, is trying to match battery life and durability of commercial gadgets. Its power inverters require more frequent battery changes than commercial models, and some have been water damaged. Chittle attributes the human error that appears when trying to build 20 models for a single machine.

Carswell said there were some loopholes that cluttered a small amount of data.

However, Chittle said he was able to make improvements without significantly increasing the cost.

“This summer, we’ve been collecting data for a month at a time, then go up and change the batteries,” he said. “Towards the end of this summer, I was able to improve the dedicated inverters for up to three months of battery life without changing the battery.” He said the additional design improvements were “very realistic.”

The devices are accurate. The DIY transducers are less than a centimeter in size when calibrated with commercial sensors, Smith said.

If these adapters continue to provide commercial-quality data collection at a much lower cost, researchers will likely be able to better understand the impact of boat wake-ups on coastal erosion.

The research group wants the sensors to be accessible to anyone.

“We are really interested in providing low-cost and accessible sensors to any interest group, which will then allow us to determine the relative contribution of wind waves versus wake boats to coastal erosion,” Smith said.

Next, Smith said, the research group will process their raw data, separate wind waves from wake boats, and separately analyze the energy output to predict the degree of erosion associated with each.

People interested in learning more about the project can contact Chittle at chittle5@uwindsor.ca.


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