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StormSensor Terrapin

Making it easy to get the data we need to optimize existing infrastructure and make good stormwater decisions.

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How does your idea apply new technologies to make agriculture and water systems more resilient in the face of climate threats?

Our focus is on stormwater infrastructure, and despite the large number of sensors available, none of them are cost-effective or capable of operating in a mesh network over a large area, making data acquisition difficult. With our sensors, we can track both water quality and quantity throughout municipalities and facilities to identify problems (e.g., flooding or pollution sources) early, and direct funds to fix specific problems, instead of applying a blind, blanket, hope-based approach.

Stormwater is the number one cause of water pollution in urban areas. For example, in the Seattle area, for every 1 acre of paved surface, 1 million gallons of polluted stormwater enters the Puget Sound every year.

Stormwater pollution causes high concentrations of bacteria, nutrients, and loads of sediment that results in no-swim zones, fish kills, and very expensive drinking water, and climate change causes heavier rainfall and stronger storms, which means that systems designed for 50- or 100-year flood events are forced to deal with these events at a much higher frequency than anticipated.

As a result, federal, state, and local governments have developed ever more stringent regulations requiring stricter compliance with monitoring and reporting stormwater quality, as well as maintaining stormwater infrastructure.

Right now, this is a highly manual process, and resources are limited in terms of both people and equipment available to tackle the problem. We want to automate as much of the process as possible, from data acquisition and entry, project tracking, reporting, and notifications of problems.

While we have developed the software to automate the in-office workflow, we are in the process of developing the hardware to automate the field efforts as well.

The hardware consists of several sensor units that use ultrasonic and Doppler to measure temperature and flow of water through above- and belowground pipes. The sensor units, which are individually called Scutes, communicate to each other using radio via a self-healing mesh network, as well as to the main communication hub, which uploads the data to our users' apps. Data acquisition can be completed in real time, or in set time increments. Scutes go to sleep when no moving water is present, unless, of course, all other Scutes within the Terrapin are measuring flow, in which case the user is notified of the anomaly.  

Uploaded data will be presented graphically and/or on a map designed to visually interpret the operational effectiveness of the storm sewer system. As we accumulate more data on a larger scale, we will be able to (1) use predictive analytics to predict pollutant loading and ultimately prevent it from happening in the first place, and (2) optimize our existing stormwater infrastructure by quickly identifying and fixing key problem areas.

We anticipate having three Scutes (i.e., a very small Terrapin) operating in the field later this spring. This field pilot will validate our solution and provide the data necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of the devices for use by our customers.

Applications for Terrapin in the stormwater space include flood control, flow control, pollution distribution, source identification, system maintenance, infrastructure optimization, evaluation of the success of GSI/LID, among others. Potential applications abound in other industries, including waste water, green buildings, agriculture, etc. We'll focus on that after we have the stormwater market nailed down.

Demand for Terrapin is high; all we need now, or at least once the field pilot is complete, is to figure out how to pay for it!

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

I have been interviewing municipal employees, e.g., managers of environmental departments and public works, for the last couple years to determine (1) whether my idea was valuable and of interest, (2) key parameters that we need to measure, and (3) the easiest path to acceptance. Their feedback was consistently both enthusiastic and valuable. In addition, we are conducting field tests later this spring to confirm that it does work and we can manufacture Terrapin to meet our customers' demands.

We are excited to learn about ideas at diverse stages of development. At what stage would you currently classify your idea as? (multiple choice)

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

How do you plan to grow or scale this idea?

In an ideal world, we would sell enough software to be able to self-fund the hardware production, manufacture, and testing. In the meantime, we need to conduct additional pilot tests, develop white papers with relevant partners, and get the word out beyond my meeting with local municipalities. In line with that, we have a substantial social media presence - primarily LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram - while attending conferences to gauge interest and identify our future customers.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Hardware manufacturing, working with both public and private customers, funding hardware builds, expanding awareness, selling products to an industry historically lacking in innovation....

This idea emerged from:

My former company hired a stormwater group and promptly started losing money. I asked my field guys what was going on, and they said that every time it rained at the office, they had to go to their sites to sample. But just because it's raining here didn't mean it's raining there; they were making 4 trips to every site before they could grab a sample. I said that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Why don't we have rain gauges that text us when it rains. They laughed and told me to invent it

Tell us about your work experience:

I have been an environmental consultant in Seattle for more than a decade, during which time I've experienced the frustrations inherent in the stormwater industry. I was Vice President and Principal Scientist at SoundEarth Strategies, where I helped them grow from 8 people in 2005 to more than 120 people when I left in 2013. I was Managing Principal at SLR, and I left to found my own company, Rothman & Associates, in 2014. I've managed companies and people from both a technical and corporate perspective, and I attribute my success to an unusual determination to fix problems. I co-founded StormSensor with my CTO, Anya Stettler, in August of 2015 and we've been running with this ever since!

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