Planktos Instruments - HydroSphere

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NC IDEA announces five North Carolina startups as fall grant winners and recipients of a collective $250,000. This story is part of a series of profiles on the winners. 

Water quality researchers put a lot of weight on two aspects of their work—the rigor of their data and the time/effort they spend gathering that data.

But a juggling act stands in the way of achieving both of these things. Researchers must ensure the accuracy of their data, while simultaneously monitoring the information gathered at each of their measurement locations.

But a new device by Morehead City startup Planktos Instruments ensures the quality and efficiency of river water data collection for the first time.

A patent-pending device called HyrdoSphere travels river streams in “message in a bottle” fashion, either on the surface or submerged. In route, it sends researchers real-time GPS data via text message, as well as measurements like the water’s pH and oxygen levels, temperature, depth and acceleration.

Researchers then use the data to understand any changes in the water’s movement and to calculate the source of the changes. The end goal is to determine where pollutants come from and how fast they’re traveling so water quality professionals can issue warnings for people downstream. 

To promote a "flow path" approach to water condition monitoring, Morehead City-based Planktos Instruments has developed technology that enables researchers to measure the movement, location and changes of water as it moves downstream. Credit: Planktos Instruments
The HydroSphere is influenced by a larger trend among government and academic scientists to build their own “drifters” of similar design for use in collecting measurements. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for instance, uses buoys to research and monitor the effects of climate change. And recently, an Alaska resident came across a “message in a bottle” device once released between the 1950s and ‘70s by researchers from the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center to track fish migration patterns.

But what sets Planktos’ technology apart is its niche focus on river research, a field that previously had little access to drifting devices. What’s also unique is the HyrdroSphere’s capacity to measure water movement and parameters at the same time. 

The product has proven useful on the Mississippi, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers—all of which are “big rivers with big problems” that HydroSphere is helping solve, says Planktos founder Scott Ensign.

“Our customers are putting our product to the test and giving us useful feedback on how we can improve it,” he adds.

A main allocation for the new NC IDEA funds will be to develop future iterations of the HydroSphere. 

The grant will also help Planktos build rental units so prospective customers can try the HydroSphere at their own study sites. Ensign says this helps his team receive feedback quickly, reach new markets and advance the product.

Additional benefits from the grant are access to resources and guidance from the NC IDEA staff and team members, all things that Ensign says will “greatly accelerate the business.”

NC IDEA President and CEO Thom Ruhe notes that the water sampling process is expensive, as professionals must travel on boats to do so. Even then, they might not be able to access certain locations.

But Planktos’ HydroSphere is changing that, he says, by giving researchers the freedom to collect data from different locations with “high-tech water testing instrumentation and cellular connectivity.”

Ensign says, “In addition to solving a problem for scientists, we were also solving a major problem for all water quality researchers: the need for more data along the length of entire rivers to gain a comprehensive picture of the sources and processes leading to water pollution.”

The product shows promise, says Ruhe, not just for making river water researchers’ jobs easier but also for ensuring healthier and safer rivers across the country.