Connectivity Matters

Wireless mesh the next step in advancing research at Black Rock Forest


The same type of low-cost yet cutting-edge wireless network that’s bringing broadband connectivity to impoverished countries in South America is being installed at Black Rock Forest to help scientists more accurately retrieve data from the Forest’s remote research stations. 
The network — a “wireless mesh” system of 20 self-powered “nodes” or access points — is being installed this fall and should be up and running by spring 2019. Earlier this year, Black Rock Forest and its technology collaborator, SayCel, received a grant totaling nearly $318,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Field Station and Marine Laboratory program to support the project. 
The need for the upgrade has become pronounced in recent years, as the Forest’s rocky, dense terrain has proven challenging not just for hikers, but for data collection as well. As research programs at New York University (NYU), Columbia University and other institutions have expanded, there are often a dozen or more studies ongoing at the Forest. However, connectivity problems associated with aging wireless infrastructure, as well as the added challenges of high winds and storms, have plagued many of the remote data stations at the preserve. 
The result has been an inefficient research model, says Dr. Andrew Reinmann, a professor at the Advanced Science Research Center of the City University of New York, whose students work frequently at the Forest. “In some cases, the conditions require someone to physically retrieve the data and inspect the sensors,” he said.
Black Rock Forest’s new network will be able to reconfigure itself as weather or other conditions change, allowing sensors to be accessed remotely, providing his students a “real-time feel for the data,” Reinmann added. 
The new system can also easily be expanded as researchers’ needs change in the future. “This will create an even better infrastructure that will hopefully attract and enable new studies,” said Bill Schuster, the executive director of Black Rock Forest.
But the installation of the new network is only part of the story here.
Edwin Reed-Sanchez, a graduate of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Master’s Program (ITP), Adjunct instructor for the ITP Towers of Powers course and a team member of RiskEcon® Lab for Decision Metrics at Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, is the founder of SayCel, a company that implements communications infrastructure solutions in the developing world. For the past four years, Reed-Sanchez’s company has built wireless networks in underserved areas like coastal Nicaragua, where many communities lack basic connectivity. But could his work further scientific research as well?
That’s what led David K.A. Mordecai, Ph.D., and Samantha Kappagoda, the husband and wife team who founded RiskEcon® Lab @Courant and also serve on the Forest’s Leadership Council, to fund the research and development activities of SayCel and to subsequently introduce Reed-Sanchez to Black Rock Forest. 
Mordecai and Kappagoda have observed scientists and students conducting important research on sequestration and forest ecology at the Forest, yet being hampered by the region’s terrain and wireless capabilities. Bringing SayCel’s technology to the mountainous Hudson Highlands, they believed, could pay immediate dividends by producing more accurate, reliable data. 
“The more granular and higher resolution, reliable data that can be collected,” Mordecai said, “the more robust the research that can be conducted. Data is the fundamental building block of science.”
Just like the Visitor Access Pathway and decades of land conservation — seemingly disparate initiatives — the wireless mesh network is another example of the Forest’s ongoing efforts to create accessibility — for people, for wildlife and, now, even for data.
Schuster says he envisions bringing environmental information to a broader audience and expanding the involvement of the diverse groups who interact with the Forest and its field station. 
“More than 13,000 students visit Black Rock Forest each year,” he said. “We are taking steps like this to increase student and citizen participation — particularly of women and underrepresented minorities — in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. We see it as our responsibility to improve our outreach, and that aligns perfectly with Edwin Reed-Sanchez’s mission at SayCel.” 
“From cellular installation on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua to Wi-Fi mesh networks in Brooklyn, we have designed and built networks to help create a more equitable and better-connected world,” added Reed-Sanchez. “Now we will be connecting ecologists at a field station to support important environmental research.”