Tidal flooding is a steadily increasing problem that affects thousands of people. The extent of flooding is often unknown, leaving community members with little direction on what to expect, potentially creating dangerous situations. The Spatial Extent of Sunny Day Flooding EPICS in IEEE team, under the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Senior Design program at North Carolina State University (NCSU), has been tackling this problem by building a sensor system to increase the data around sunny day flooding, a phenomenon affecting coastal communities. A system of solar-powered camera modules utilizing machine learning is being developed to estimate the spatial extent of tidal flooding in coastal North Carolina communities, as well as a network of sensor modules to measure the water quality in stormwater drains.

The current sea level rise due to climate change is forcing tides higher—influencing stormwater networks and causing water to flood roadways. “This is something that I’ve grown up and seen happening [and] it is really cool to work on something that I have a connection to and can see the impact that it can make,” said Patrick Covil, a senior in Electrical and Computer Engineering. This flooding can be “harmful to the infrastructure of the city and also bring up bacteria through the storm grates,” noted Chandler Beiler, also a senior in Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

The team is working on creating a fleet of sensor and camera nodes that are battery-powered and placed out in the storm drains or elevated above roadways. The sensors will then transmit data on water quality and estimated flood area back to a dashboard where researchers can better understand where this water is coming from. Because the images can be analyzed on the camera, the images do not have to be broadcast publicly. “The senior design team in ECE is filling a data gap on the spatial extent of these floods and communities in a way that preserves privacy,” says Dr. Katherine Anarde, Assistant Professor, Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering. Ryan McCune, a Ph.D. student, notes that the system uses machine learning to help researchers study the flooding data, adding, “the community members will definitely be experiencing great impact.” 

EPICS in IEEE has given a grant of US $7,705 to support this project as part of the Environmental Competition by EPICS in IEEE, in partnership with the United Engineering Foundation (UEF).

The ECE Senior Design project team is working with the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering and the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at NCSU to implement this solution. Across coastal cities in North Carolina, the team plans to place hundreds of waterproof sensors that will transmit data to a secure, online gateway in real-time. The hope is that the data can be provided to communities not well represented by county governments to produce change. “We envision that in the future there will be a network of these types of tools…this is just the start of more projects that will build on this,” noted Natalie Nelson, Assistant Professor, Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

Signifying the usefulness of projects like this for university students, Dr. Rachana Gupta, Director of ECE Senior Design, notes that EPICS in IEEE “allows us to work on multi-disciplinary projects with community impact exposing students to real-world problem solving while applying system engineering, project planning, and management.” Adding to that sentiment, Sean Gray, an Electrical and Computer Engineering student, said, “this project is very open-ended…we have to determine to use of budget, generously funded by EPICS in IEEE, and how we are going to use that budget to purchase materials to get the job done, we have to schedule out our time, work together as a team. It is definitely more of a sense of how an engineering team might work in the real world.” 

EPICS in IEEE enabled us to “fund our program and take on projects that have more of an environmental and social good aspect to them,” said Jeremy Edmondson, Associate Director of ECE Senior Design. “It gives the students an opportunity to work cross-functionally across the university and with community partners.” When asked about the project, Daniel Choe, a senior in Electrical and Computer Engineering, said, “I wanted to do something that will affect my family and other families that also deal with this phenomenon [of sunny-day floodings].” Adding that “being on a multi-disciplinary team has given me a lot of perspective working with our mentors and different majors…it gave me a greater appreciation.”

“The EPICS in IEEE model allows students and faculty to take technology into the community to benefit humanity,” according to Dr. Stephanie Gillespie, Chair, EPICS in IEEE. “A big strength of EPICS in IEEE is the collaboration between different engineering disciplines,” notes Megan Carr, a Ph.D. student in Biological and Agricultural Engineering, reflecting on the project. The Sunny Day Flooding project’s estimated completion date is May 2023, and the estimated number of people this project will impact is over 6,000.

View the below video to hear more from the students and faculty involved in this project.