Standing Guard With Sensors: Q&A With Beacon Institute President Tim Sugrue

Timothy F. Sugrue, Ph.D. is President and Chief Executive Officer of Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries at Clarkson University. He previously served as Clarkson’s dean of the School of Business for more than 13 years. He has taught on the faculty of West Virginia University and as an affiliate faculty member at the United States Military Academy, of which he is a graduate, and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

An award-winning leader in graduate and undergraduate business education, Tim manages all aspects of Beacon Institute’s operations and launched the Beacon/ClarksonMaster of Science in Engineering Management, one of the fastest-growing such programs in the nation. We spoke with Tim about what the sensor revolution holds in store for the Hudson River, the St. Lawrence and the waterways of the world.

John Cronin: Not too many years ago there was much talk about a “sensor revolution.” Today sensors are commonplace — cars, phones, child’s toys, even human implants run on sensors that deliver or operate on real-time information. What has made this possible is large commercial investment in innovations that reduce size and cost, with the marketplace as the delivery system. What will it take before rivers like the Hudson or St. Lawrence can be thoroughly monitored by a network of sensors?

Tim Sugrue: Standing guard on an asset as large as the Hudson or St. Lawrence is no simple task. We don’t know when or where a threat will present itself or what form it will take. Monitoring must be done continuously, systematically and comprehensively. Continuously means that this is a 24/7/365 effort. This means that we must operate under all conditions, including ice.  Ice surface conditions in these rivers are, as you know, very severe. We need to deploy below the ice to survive. Systematic means that we need a sufficient number of strategically placed deployment sites to provide adequate coverage and we need to maintain these sites in all conditions.

Our rule of thumb is that we need three monitors for each site: one in the water, one in the boat and one in the shop. This suggests a very large number of monitors is needed. Bending the cost curve is critical. At $30K per monitor a 50-site system would require a capital investment of $4.5M for the monitors themselves. This is much too expensive to be realistic. If you can bring the cost of a monitor down to $1K, the system cost is only $150K. This is the approach we have taken – by building and maintaining a cost-efficient network we can make real-time water quality monitoring a reality for the Hudson, St. Lawrence and potentially any river in the world.

The objective is to harness the resolve to act now, not with politically clever half-measures but with determination worthy of an urgent threat.

JC: Our friend Nick Donofrio, former IBM Executive Vice President of Innovation and Technology, says we live in a water economy. It’s an important insight that begs the question of how we can create a vehicle for investment in that economy. Water in a bottle may be a commodity, but a river is not. Is there a way of creating that opportunity, perhaps through commercialization of real-time technology, such as that being developed for REON.

Beacon Institute’s REON team prepares a sonde for deployment.

Beacon Institute’s REON team prepares a sonde for deployment.

TS: There is an economic parable referred to as the tragedy of the New England commons. A pasture common to all and shared can be, and was, brought to ruin by overuse by putting individual welfare (keeping the extra cow) ahead of the common good. Thinking of a resource that belongs to all of us as a resource that belongs to none of us is the pathway to ruin for the resource. Stewardship of the river will require us to learn from the tragedy of the commons. Leaders must be actively engaged in the protection of these key resources.

There is a second part of the answer to your question, which also stems from economics. If government induces demand for technology, commercial enterprise will arise to meet that demand at a price dictated by a competitive market. This is exactly what we need to see happen in real-time environmental monitoring. To date, innovation has been achieved by investment within the public sector. Now that the ball is rolling, the private sector must be induced to invest in innovation to meet a created demand. This can happen fairly quickly.

JC: Spills have grabbed headlines in recent years, most recently the Gold King Mine spill on the Animas River in Colorado, during which the EPA waited days for lab results to confirm whether toxins were headed downstream. Given the diversity of daily threats to which a river could be subjected, it is startling to an objective mind that we do not have instant information about the quality of water. Help us understand the obstacle. Is it technological limits, lack of research funding, inadequate understanding by the public and policy makers, all of the above?

TS: I’ll surprise you, John. I think the answer is: “none of the above.” We have the technology to get the job done. Research funding can assure further advances, but the fruits of prior investments are in our hands. I believe the public and policy makers understand the problem and even the consequences of inaction. The objective is to harness the resolve to act now, not with politically clever half-measures but with determination worthy of an urgent threat. When it comes to water, the stakes are too high because it impacts everything.  To protect it, we need a data collection effort that is continuous, systematic and comprehensive and one that produces data that is used to reveal the status of river water quality. Furthermore, these data must be intensively analyzed to provide actionable intelligence.  The public needs to DEMAND that this be done.

JC: In a recent Watermark interview, Clarkson’s Amir Mousavian said,“Power systems and all other critical resources should be monitored in real-time using state-of-the-art sensors and technologies.” His field is cyber security but he had no problem applying his research to water systems. Do you see the same correlation?

TS: How could I not?  Technology for technology sake is never worthy of the pursuit.  When we have a proven technology such as real-time sensing, the value of the technology is in the application.  In both cyber security and water stewardship, we are trying to protect an important asset from unknown and unseen assault.

JC: Tell us your vision for Beacon Institute’s River and Estuary Observatory Network 5 and 20 years down the road.

TS: I’ll take this as an invitation to think big. I see a time when real-time water quality monitoring is sufficiently inexpensive that sensor networks can be effectively deployed anywhere on the globe. I envision our having the capacity to detect and identify, directly or indirectly, the presence of live pathogens in drinking water. In short, I see us solving the greatest threat to human health across the globe. Big enough?