WV environmental monitoring company expanding its reach

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail photos
B.J. Evans, managing director of Aridea Solutions, shows the sensor buoy the company has built for a project outside West Virginia. The Charleston-based company specializes in environmental monitoring and relaying data from rural areas.
Aridea Solutions Director of Engineering Rob Moore checks on the remote sensing unit of the buoy Aridea is constructing. The buoy measures oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane and volatile compounds that can affect vulnerable organisms.
The sensing unit of the buoy reaches down into the water to measure levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, methane and volatile compounds. Aridea has built a similar unit to monitor the environment of mussels in the Ohio River.
Courtesy photo
Steve Foster and Andrew Johnson of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers place the WIZARD monitoring platform, constructed by Aridea Solutions, into the Ohio River to measure sediment levels in mussel beds.

A Charleston company with a grand total of seven employees has served as a crucial resource for large companies and organizations around the world whose operations impact the environment.

Tucked away in its second-floor office on Kanawha Boulevard, Aridea Solutions’ technology has been used in places nearby, like the Ohio River, and as far away as China and Argentina.

“I’ve done everything from fabricating metal to running the company,” said B.J. Evans, Aridea’s managing director. “You just do what you got to do to make it work.”

Aridea, a subsidiary of the IT company Advantage Technology, specializes in monitoring technology that can reliably communicate environmental data back to utilities and companies involved in extractive and chemical industries.

Aridea won’t disclose all of its projects and clients, who include Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. and Alpha Natural Resources, but they’ve all encountered similar issues prior to the company’s debut in 2014. There has been a constant struggle to collect accurate data easily and efficiently where there isn’t a reliable connection.

“The major reason for the adoption [of Aridea devices] has been manpower issues and not knowing about issues immediately,” said Chris May, Aridea’s director of channel sales. “Most of the sites we deal with, there is no internet there, no power there.”

Much of Aridea’s work involves connecting its various sensing units, which collect data on weather, water and air quality, to the internet so its information can be relayed to clients.

Aridea installs a gateway connection at the most accessible point where there’s a signal, and the units communicate to this gateway over a long-range radio signal. May said the company has even been able to relay data reliably from a site in Boone County, where a signal is limited at best.

The gateway serves as a middleman from the sensors to the nearest cell tower, which then connects to Aridea’s cloud-based ThingInformer Platform for easy viewing of the measurements of natural resources — no manpower needed.

“Imagine you have to send a guy two or three hours to a site just because you think something might be off,” he said. “That’s not a good business plan. With this continuous monitoring, they save money on manual sampling and can know when things need to be treated right away.”

Aridea’s claim to fame might be the device used on the Ohio River near the Robert C. Byrd Lock and Dam that launched late last year. The company worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to monitor the currents and make sure sediment isn’t accumulating on mussel beds in the river.

Mussels are an important part of the ecosystem for filtering water and being a food source for many different organisms. The corps had already been using prototypes, called DOROTHY and TOTO, to monitor the effects of river dredging on the organisms. But it needed a more effective solution and called for outside help. Enter Aridea’s WIZARD.

“That’s Water Intrinsic Zoological Ambient Research Device,” May said. “They were just as excited about the name as they were about the actual platform.”

Aridea designed the WIZARD monitoring platform, connected to a buoy, which can record and send data such as temperature, pH levels and turbidity in the river that updates within minutes. It measures changes in the sediment via eight transducers and runs on battery power recharged by solar panels attached to the buoy.

WIZARD has done its job since being deployed, and the corps was quick to give the project a thumbs up, May said. The corps took the buoy to a government conference to show off the technology, and Aridea’s reputation quickly grew.

“It’s very hard to get a contract with them; they’re very picky and they don’t allow you to advertise what you do for them,” May said. “But they showed our work, and then people began to say, ‘These people are serious.’ ”

Soon, the team began receiving calls to work on projects beyond West Virginia. Aridea’s footprint in the monitoring and communications world has quickly spread to Utah, Florida, Alabama and Kentucky for a variety of industries that affect the environment.

It’s a big leap for a company that started because Evans’ skill-set didn’t quite fit elsewhere.

Evans, a West Virginia native, spent most of his career involved with the telecommunications and engineering industries. But that work took him outside of West Virginia, the state where he wanted to remain for the long term.

Evans thought it was time to return home to address an issue that frequently appeared during his interactions with the energy sector — companies monitoring remote areas they are involved in. It was being done already, but required employees traveling to these locations, acquiring samples and testing them. Time is crucial when addressing leaks and spills, Evans said, and that method isn’t timely.

“Better technology can make a big difference in that space,” he said. “I got kids, and I want to make things here better and safer for them.”

Evans said he came up with the idea for Aridea in 2011. It was spurred by the new concept of “the internet of things,” where devices everywhere can be in constant communication with each other on their own networks. But Aridea couldn’t launch right away.

“The idea was there, but the maturity of the market wasn’t,” he said. “There were companies like IBM, Cisco and Texas Instruments making big investments [in the internet of things]. I thought there was no way I could compete at that level.”

Evans put the idea on the back burner in 2014 and met with Richard Wilbur, president and CEO of Advantage Technology, for a job interview. There wasn’t a position open that fit Evans’ expertise, but Wilbur wanted Evans aboard in some shape or form. He asked Evans what he really wanted to be doing, and Evans expanded on his business idea.

Wilbur signed off on Aridea as part of Advantage Technology, seeing the potential it had for the region’s energy sector.

The road wasn’t smooth at first. Evans said they spread themselves too thin with the initial idea.

“Nobody understood what we did,” he said. “So we shifted from monitoring everything to just focusing on environmental monitoring.”

That made it easier for Evans and May to land contracts, as they focused their outreach on the industry with which they already had familiarity. The rapid rise of the internet of things coincided with the new business.

Aridea had found its footing and became an established company, no longer just Evans’ pipe dream.

Business remains steady for Aridea, according to May. On Thursday, the team shipped out another data buoy for an environmental project outside West Virginia. Aridea constructed the device in just two weeks. That’s a short timeline for a mere seven employees, but it has become routine for Aridea, May said.

“[The same client] has called me again, and they said, ‘We want another one, and we want it soon,’ ” he said. “We’re doing something hardly anybody does, and we want to always do it well.”

Reach Max Garland at max.garland@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.

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