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£1.2 million grant for researchers tackling flood and landslide hazards

A project to reduce risks related to landslides and floods has received £1.2m funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

SENSUM (Smart SENSing of landscapes Undergoing hazardous hydrogeological Movement), led by the University of Exeter in collaboration with the Universities of Plymouth and East Anglia, will develop new monitoring technologies to reduce the risks associated with hydrogeological hazards.

Floods and landslides affect various parts of the world every year, both inland and along coastlines, causing disruption, occasional fatalities and severe economic loss.

An increase in storminess under climate change and population pressure is resulting in an increase in these hazards, as well as threatening the defences put in place to manage them.

Traditionally, landslides and floods have been monitored separately, using a combination of satellite-based remote-sensing techniques and wired ground-based instruments to measure factors such as river flow level, slope displacement and soil moisture.

SENSUM proposes a new integrated way to tackle these hazards, taking advantage of advances in Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, microelectronics and machine learning.

WSNs show great potential for monitoring and early warning of these hazards. Their main advantage is in the use of easily deployable, low-power sensors that enable continuous, long-term, low-cost monitoring of the environment.

WSNs send and receive data via an internet-based server in real-time, making them part of the growing Internet of Things revolution, in which devices are interconnected and may talk to each other without human intervention.

Over the past two years, several members of the team have been developing innovative smart tracking devices, embedded in boulders on hillslopes, to monitor landslide processes in Nepal (on the NERC-funded BOULDER project).

SENSUM will further develop these devices for tracking boulder and woody debris on hillslopes and in rivers, to give real-time warnings of movement related to landslide and flood processes.

“For landslides and floods, which occur infrequently and unpredictably, this is an important technological advance,” said Principal Investigator Dr Georgie Bennett, a Lecturer in Physical Geography at the University of Exeter.

“This novel technology will enable us to map slope motion in unprecedented detail, track propagation of debris on hillslopes and in rivers, and record interactions between debris, giving unique insights into the interaction and behaviour of material in landslides and floods.

“The technology will also be used to assess the stability of woody debris structures, used increasingly in UK rivers as part of Natural Flood Risk Management.”

Co-Investigator Aldina Franco, Associate Professor in Ecology at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, said: “SENSUM takes advantage of a new technology we have developed with NERC proof-of-concept funding.

“Initially we developed this technology to track animal movement and migration but have adapted it to track boulders and other objects on the BOULDER project so we can create early warning systems for human populations.”

Co-Investigator Dr Irene Manzella, Lecturer in Engineering Geology and Geohazards at the University of Plymouth, added: “As well as providing warnings of instability and hazardous movement, the sensor data on debris movement in floods and landslides will be used to improve mathematical models of these processes.

“Finally, we will create compelling 3D visualisations of landslides and floods as it is essential we not only enhance our understanding of these hazards, but find ways of communicating them to communities they are likely to affect.”

Collaborating closely with external partners, including the Environment Agency, Forest England, Natural England and AECOM, the team of experts will develop and test the tracking devices both in dedicated laboratory experiments at the University of Plymouth and in the field, in different localities in the UK and internationally.

This integrated approach will enable the researchers to establish a comprehensive understanding of landslide and flood processes which will significantly reduce risk to society.

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SENSUM is being funded under NERC’s Constructing a Digital Environment programme and will begin in October.

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