SENSUM: Smart SENSing of landscapes Undergoing hazardous hydrogeological Movement

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


Floods and landslides affect the UK every year, both inland and along the coast, causing disruption, occasional fatalities and severe economic loss. An increase in storminess under climate change and population pressure are resulting in an increase in landslide and flood hazards in the UK and globally and threatening the defences put in place to manage these hazards. Monitoring of unstable hillslopes and flood-prone rivers as well as defences designed to manage these is increasingly vital. Landslides and floods are both triggered by heavy rainfall, often occur at the same time, and may interact to generate a chain reaction of knock-on hazardous effects. SENSUM proposes a new integrated way to tackle these 'hydrogeological' hazards, taking advantage of advances in Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, microelectronics and machine learning. Those exciting new tools will be used to monitor the stability of defences, provide warnings of hazard events, and improve mathematical models and visualisation of hazardous phenomena.

Landslides and floods have traditionally been monitored using a combination of satellite-based remote-sensing techniques and wired ground-based instruments to measure factors that control the related hazard, such as river flow level, displacement and soil moisture. Wireless sensor networks (WSNs) show great potential for monitoring and early warning of these hazards. Their main advantage is their use of easily deployable, low-power sensors enabling continuous, long-term, low-cost monitoring of the environment. For landslides and floods, which occur infrequently and unpredictably, this is an important technological advance. SENSUM proposes to develop innovative smart tracking devices, embedded in boulders and woody debris on hillslopes and in rivers to give real-time warning of movement related to landslide and flood processes. Collaborating closely with external partners, the team of experts in the SENSUM project will develop and test the tracking devices both in dedicated laboratory experiments and in the field, with the deployment of trial networks of smart boulders and woody debris in different localities in the UK and abroad. The large set of data obtained from sites and experiments will be used to improve mathematical models, to develop innovative early warning systems and in 3D digital visualisations. This integrated approach will enable us to establish a comprehensive understanding of landslide and flood processes which will significantly reduce risk to society.

The SENSUM team is a diverse, interdisciplinary and multinational team made up of a range of environmental scientists and engineers, computer scientists and science communication specialists from three leading UK universities: University of Exeter, University of East Anglia and University of Plymouth and will involve several project partners including the Environment Agency, Forest England, Natural England and AECOM. It will work closely with these project partners to design an effective digital environment for monitoring and managing landslide and flood hazards in the UK, and to target applied risk management challenges. For example, in the UK, the Environment Agency is tasked with giving a 2-hour warning to the population affected by floods. However, these warnings are lacking in the upland areas of the UK's landscape due to a lack of instruments to monitor river flow. The smart tracking devices embedded within boulder and woody debris in landslides and river channels proposed by SENSUM will help address that limitation, and therefore will significantly improve early warning of movement and consequently the assessment of potential high-risk natural events. The team will also engage stakeholders and the general public through the creation of compelling visualizations of landslide and flood hazards and through project workshops and outreach activities.

Planned Impact

SENSUM will develop and demonstrate several new technologies for landslide and hazard assessment and management in the UK and globally. It will also collect novel and valuable datasets on dynamics of landslides and floods that will enhance understanding and models of landslides and floods. Through close collaboration with stakeholders at workshops and field visits, SENSUM will ensure the positive economic and societal impacts and legacy of new technologies and process understanding during and beyond the duration of the project.

The smart tracking devices that SENSUM will develop will be a low cost device (at £200 for first prototypes) that will be useful for both academics and industry for tracking movement and monitoring hazards with WSNs and IoT technology. SENSUM will build on a proof of concept study by members of the team to demonstrate the full potential of this sensor technology for detecting and tracking landslide and flood hazards. The technology will provide a low cost solution to enhance the monitoring of these hazards by businesses such as AECOM with wider economic and societal benefits. The tracking devices will also enable the SENSUM team to collect unprecedented datasets and understanding of landslide and flood processes. These results will also be shared with stakeholders to further enhance management practice.

The smart tracking devices will also be useful for monitoring stability and movement of wood in rivers, informing Natural Flood Risk Management (NFM) practice in the UK. In particular tagging of large wood and boulders used to create 'leaky dams' will fill a big gap in understanding of the engineering performance of these structures. Discussions on this work have already begun between the SENSUM team and the Environment Agency (EA). Outcomes from this research could inform the development of industry guidance inputting directly to the development of the CIRIA-led NFM Design Guide that the EA is involved in and will help target maintenance of these structures by the EA and land managers. More accurate characterisation of the rheology and of the dynamics of the flows produced by SENSUM will be used as input parameters in numerical models to improve their predictive capability of landslides and debris transport in floods. This will help with decision making, for example regarding installation of mitigation measures and leaky dams to minimize risk to critical infrastructure and affected area.

SENSUM will be a pioneer in demonstrating the potential of machine learning in combination with WSN technology for the early warning of hydrogeological hazards. It will develop a practically applicable system to provide early warning of floods and landslides and help to mitigate their impacts on communities and infrastructure. The early warning system underpinned by IoT networking technologies will be co-designed and shared with stakeholders and PPs at SENSUM project workshops. We will also design a web interface for visualizing data from wireless sensor networks for the benefit of academics studying landslide-flood dynamics and to help stakeholders to visualize and monitor movement e.g. around critical infrastructure. The SENSUM team will work to integrate sensor technology, the web interface and early warning system to provide a complete monitoring system to revolutionize landslide and flood management.

Multiple stakeholders will benefit from the 3D visualizations of hazardous landslide and flood events that will be produced by SENSUM based on novel datasets, improved model simulations and images collected through citizen science. These will be projected in the unique Immersive Vision Theatre (IVT) and widely shared with an inflatable IVT via outreach events in the UK. This dynamic digital hazard visualization will be a powerful tool for facilitating exchanges between scientists and at-risk populations and ultimately helping to increase preparedness and resilience to landslide and flood risks.


10 25 50