Flash flood alerts: How sonar IoT systems help protect communities in Honduras

Sonar sensors, IoT and maker labs help Honduran communities with early flood warnings.

Rivers in Honduras flood frequently and suddenly, wreaking havoc, washing away houses, ruining crops and displacing families. Could IoT help provide early warning of floods?

Robert Ryan-Silva took on this challenge with the Hidrosónico project. As director of the DAI maker lab, he’s an expert in applying technology for humanitarian projects around the world.

Many villages and farms in Honduras are prone to flooding because they are on river banks. Designing a solution was challenging. It had to detect rising flood waters and alert families to evacuate in time. The solution had to be affordable, rugged and easy to install. Making things harder was the fact that mobile phones had only 20 percent penetration in Honduras.

Sonar Sensors

Bats use echolocation to "see" with the help of sound. They send out "bat call” (sounds), which bounce off nearby objects. By sensing how long it takes for the echo to return, they can detect nearby objects and how fast those objects are moving. Sonar IoT sensors are based on the same principle.

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The Hidrosónico project uses sonar sensors mounted to bridges to measure the water level below. The sensors send high-frequency sounds onto the water and measure how long it takes for the echo to reflect back. As the rivers flood, water levels rise, and the return time for the echo shrinks because there's a shorter distance to traverse.

This approach makes the solution affordable, with components costing around $300. All of the product design details, coding and supplier details are available freely on GitHub. This enables local firms to build an IoT warning system themselves and help protect more communities from floods.

Project takeaways

  1. Having end users collaborate in the design process helps increase adoption. 
  2. Using off-the-shelf components lowers costs and simplify repairs.
  3. Sharing the designs freely maximizes social benefits and encourage further improvements.
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Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI)

DAI has been developing innovative solutions to social and environmental problems for over 40 years. DAI experts work closely with local communities in over a hundred countries to build solutions appropriate for local conditions. The organization operates maker labs around the world so that solutions can be developed close to where they’ll be used.

“The DAI maker labs help introduce the maker movement in developing countries," said Ryan-Silva. "These labs empower non-specialists to design and build electronic and mechanical devices in quantities that aren’t economically viable with traditional mass production methods. The impact is huge!”

DAI is a contractor for USAID, a federal agency that promotes international development.

“We engage with private sector firms to tap the smartest brains and latest technologies to solve problems around the world,” said Sabeen Dhanani, deputy coordinator for the Digital Development for Feed the Future team at the Global Development Lab at USAID. You can learn more about partnering/volunteering with USAID here.

Floods in Honduras are still dangerous, but thanks to the innovative IoT work by DAI, families now have a better chance to evacuate to higher ground in time.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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