Multidisciplinary research team explores smart stormwater management

U.Va. group awarded grant to pursue cyber-physical approach to flooding mitigation

The National Science Foundation has awarded a multidisciplinary research group, led by Assoc. Engineering Prof. Jonathan Goodall, $2.5 million to pursue research in the management of stormwater and transportation during flood events in Norfolk, Va.

Coastal cities such as Norfolk have seen an increase in sea levels over the recent years, as well more frequent occurrences of intense storms. Goodall’s team aims to use smart technology, such as internet-connected, sensor-driven drainage pipes and valves in order to mitigate the impact of stormwater during the cases of extreme weather.

This grant is one of two awarded to University research teams. The other, awarded through NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities program solicitation, will provide $1.9 million to support research in stormwater management from a water quality perspective.

By building green infrastructure and bioretention facilities, this team will research the best way to optimize the features of these facilities, including capturing runoff and removing pollutants in the water. This project is led by a team at the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia’s portion is co-led by Goodall and Assoc. Engineering Prof. Teresa Culver.

According to Goodall, the process for applying for these NSF grants was a long and uncertain one.

“The funding rate is so low [at the NSF], that you kind of just cross your fingers and maybe you’ll win the lottery,” Goodall said.

Since the notification of the award in September, Goodall and his team have begun to make big plans for the next four years. The current method for stormwater management is gravity-driven drainage. Goodall hopes to improve the method of management with smart technology.

“There’s a potential to use more active control, meaning hold the water back, close valves … And then open the valve later on to let [the water] drain out more slowly,” Goodall said.

This type of real-time control will allow changes to the system depending on the current conditions in the city.

There will be many challenges in implementing this system. The technology is very new, and Goodall is aware of the many open questions facing his team — the algorithms for controlling the infrastructure, the intricate networks of stormwater facilities, the need for outdoor-protected, inexpensive sensors and measuring the data needed to make the right decisions.

However, Goodall is confident that these problems can be addressed, especially given the wide breadth of expertise of his multidisciplinary team. The team is composed of faculty from departments within the Engineering School. Asst. Computer Science Prof. Madhur Behl, is one of the co-principal investigators on this team.

Behl’s research involves the modeling aspect of stormwater management. He proposed combining data-driven and physics-based models to study how stormwater infrastructures and city transportation interact.

Behl believes that this hybrid will be the best way to know “what is happening right now, what could happen and what actions we can take to influence the outcome.”

Both Goodall and Behl emphasize the uniqueness of this project as a model for interdisciplinary research. The project was borne out of conversations taking place at the University’s Link Lab, a multi-department, research-focused group exploring cyber-physical systems. Goodall serves as the assistant director of the lab, and works closely with director and Assoc. Computer Science Prof. Kamin Whitehouse, the co-principal investigator of the grant-supported research.

“This is a great example of why the Link Lab should exist,” Behl said. “When … different domain experts sit together in the same space and work together in the same space, those discussions will lead to ideas which are a fusion of multi disciplines … without Link Lab, I think this proposal wouldn’t have been possible.“

This grant will be in effect for at least the next four years, and the University’s team has already begun to set the stage for collaborations and partnerships with other institutions — including Old Dominion University, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, William and Mary’s Law School and the City of Norfolk.

Goodall and Behl have high hopes for the future.

“I am pretty excited to get started— we have already started to a great extent,” Behl said.

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