Instrumentation mixups: Call out the bomb squad!

04/19/2007


Be careful what you leave in the trunk of a rental car. A simple instrumentation device could get you arrested and give cause to call out the bomb squad, as one university hydrology researcher found out the hard way.

It began innocently enough. Dr. Anne Jefferson, a research associate in the geosciences department at Oregon State University, had been using Tidbit data loggers, made by Onset Computer Corp ., to monitor water temperatures in stream channels around the Mississippi River. The devices were housed in foot-long sections of PVC pipe filled with gravel. After gathering data over five months, she went to retrieve them last November. She and her husband put them in the trunk of their rental car and spent some additional time in Minneapolis visiting family over Thanksgiving. They flew back to Oregon and were greeted at the airport by federal agents who had some serious questions.

Unfortunately, they returned the car at the Minneapolis airport and forgot to take the devices. The car cleaner at the airport found the suspicious looking pipes with blinking lights and immediately called the police. The police called the FBI. The FBI called the bomb squad. The bomb sniffing dogs didn't seem interested, but they still decided to "detonate" the pipes with a high pressure water cannon. Once the pipes were blown to smithereens, they gathered up the data loggers and found most were still working.

Dr. Jefferson gave the authorities enough information for them to check out the whole story and they finally believed it was all a big misunderstanding. She eventually got her 15 data loggers back. All but two were still fully functional. When Onset heard the story, they offered to try and retrieve the data, successfully.

"The data is the study, and the basis for my postdoctoral research," says Jefferson. Without it, her work in collaboration with several other universities would have been lost. According to Linda Cain, customer service manager at Onset, Tidbits are very durable because the data are stored in an EEPROM rather than RAM. Consequently, they can survive even when internal power is lost.

Ultimately no harm was done, although Jefferson hasn't tried to fly anywhere or rent a car since.

Edited by Peter Welander , process industries editor
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