Drowned data recovered

March 26, 2007
Rugged data loggers survive "drowning" by bomb squad.

Like a collision at sea, leaving valuable data in the trunk of a rental car can ruin your entire day. Having it mistaken for an explosive device and soaked down by the bomb squad makes it worse. When the data is five month's worth of your post-doctoral research results, that pretty much puts the situation up in there in Worst Day Ever territory.

That was the situation facing Dr. Anne Jefferson, a research associate studying hydrology in the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University. Jefferson had been collecting water temperature data using underwater data loggers from stream channels along the Mississippi River. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, she put the data loggers in the trunk of the rental car she had been using during the holiday break. She and her husband spent the holiday with family and forgot to look in the trunk when they returned the car to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport. By the time they arrived in Oregon and found federal agents waiting for them at the gate, the damage was already done, and Jefferson had some explaining to do.

A rental car company employee had been suspicious of the five, one-foot lengths of PVC pipe filled with gravel found in the car's trunk. The pipes each contained three battery-powered underwater temperature-monitoring devices, called TidbiTs from Onset Computer Corp., which are slightly larger than bottle caps and have blinking LED lights.

The employee called the airport police, who in turn called the FBI, who eventually brought in a bomb squad. When bomb-sniffing dogs found nothing, the squad removed the pipes from the trunk and used a high-pressure stream of water to "detonate" them. Nothing exploded, but the pipes—and, apparently, Dr. Jefferson's data—were reduced to bits of plastic pipe and gravel.

Now for the Good News

After confirming her story with airport officials in Oregon, Jefferson said, "We drove two hours from the airport to Corvallis, and there was a message waiting from the Minneapolis airport saying that some of the loggers were still intact." The message wasn't specific, but did mention that some of the devices' green lights were still blinking.

Two long weeks after the incident, Jefferson finally received all the loggers in a sealed police evidence bag. Of the fifteen battered devices, Jefferson was able to download data from all but two. When Onset caught wind of the story, the company contacted Jefferson and offered to try to retrieve the data from the loggers. She sent them to Onset, where engineers were able to recover the rest of the data.

Having this temperature data was a tremendous relief. "The data is the study, the basis for my postdoctoral research," says Jefferson, "and without it, there was going to be a problem." It wasn't only Jefferson's research at stake; scientists from several other universities are also participating in the project.

According to Onset customer service manager, Linda Cain, the data probably survived because of the nature of the loggers. The TidbiTs are designed to be submerged underwater and to withstand rough conditions. The data recorded by the device is stored electronically in EEPROM, which unlike RAM, retains data even when the power supply is cut off.

Overall, no great harm was done, though Jefferson hasn't tried to fly anywhere or rent a car since the incident. "We're probably on their blacklist," she says.