Dr. Mark Lorang

Dr. Mark Lorang,

a researcher with UM's Flathead Lake Biological Station, holds an Acoustic Doppler Velocity Profiler.


From a distance it looks like a smallhorsepower outboard motor, minus the propeller, that UM researcher Mark Lorang attaches to his raft.

Except Lorang apparently puts it into the water upside-down.

This, however, is no Evinrude outboard motor in the hands of a confused boater. It's an Acoustic Doppler Velocity Profiler – commonly referred to as an ADP – that Lorang attaches. Most of the rest of the world uses them to calculate stream discharge, which measures the water volume flowing past a certain point.

Lorang, an associate professor of geomorphology at UM's Flathead Lake Biological Station, saw far more possibilities in the technology.

It's taken 10 years to perfect, but Lorang has developed new software that uses data collected from the ADP to create three-dimensional pictures of river systems – almost as if he has diverted rivers, as well as their banks and bottoms, through a hospital CT scanner.

The brightly colored images the software outputs present a fascinating and multifaceted picture of how a river works, almost foot by foot.

"Anyone can collect the data," Lorang says. "It's how you put it together that matters."

That was the hard part – developing software that transforms the data from the ADP into the easy-to-read 3-D images that could eliminate the need for conventional hydraulic modeling. Mark Lorang calls it the River Analyzer.

Lorang software map

Lorang's software creates colorful images such as this slice of the Flathead Riaver. Reds show faster, sediment-carrying areas; blues reveal slover water.

Joe Fanguy, director of technology transfer at UM's Office of Research and Development, calls it a potential business that could create Montana jobs.

Hired to determine how a river in Washington would behave if riprap at a state campground was removed, Lorang faced a challenge.

"I needed a great-big three-dimensional view to do the evaluations," he says. "They wanted me to show how much of the campground would flood and how much spawning habitat would be created if the riprap was taken out."

To do that, he invented River Analyzer, which merges a river's ADP hydraulic data with a Global Positioning System – airborne and satellite remote sensing data – to create a dynamic 3-D model of a river.

Programmer Chris Gotschalk, one of Lorang's research partners, helped code the software that produces the pictures from the data.

With the River Analyzer, Lorang can accurately measure large sections of river to provide information and evaluate where a river might change its course or scour its bed, which are important outcomes for many river projects. Lorang says his invention was first used while evaluating a campground site on the Dosewallips River, located in Washington on the Olympic Peninsula.

The detailed 3-D view of the river's depths and velocities near the campground helped Lorang predict for Washington officials what would happen if the riprap was removed.

"I needed it for my research," Lorang says, "but by the time I had built it, it was obvious it would be beneficial to many other people."

From fisheries biologists to dam operators, River Analyzer could be an important tool.

"The real beachhead of good that can be accomplished is it could help determine how to maximize hydroelectric power production while limiting the impact to ecology," Lorang says. "We haven't had a tool that uses real data rather than model estimates to predict how a river will change as we alter its flow. Now we do. This will help us predict the effect of river flow on streambeds, banks and ecosystems."

The initial project analyzed a relatively short section of the Dosewallips, but any distance can be covered. Lorang has since created a 3-D model for 26 miles of the Flathead River north of the point where it discharges into Flathead Lake – and he could similarly map the entire Mississippi if needed.

"Not every piece of data is good," Lorang admits. "There can be problems with both the ADP and GPS signals, or the boat spinning too fast or rocking too much. We spent a good year looking at quality control, so we can flag data that's suspect."

On the other hand, he notes, "We've gone through Class IV rapids with it and gotten beautiful data. Now for 26 miles I can slice and look at the threedimensional flow of the river meter by meter."

The pictures are bright – think of the often-colorful images associated with Doppler radar weather reports on television. Only in this case, the various colors don't show precipitation or thunderstorms; they reveal where rivers run fast, where they run slow and all speeds in between.

From dark blue (slow) to bright red (fast), a rainbow that includes light blue, dark green, light green, yellows and oranges indicates a river's velocity at any given point and at any given depth.

And he can do it anywhere in the world someone needs such a picture of all or part of a river.

With his single ADP, Lorang says he could sample the Clark Fork River as it runs through Missoula in a day. He could couple that with satellite imagery to create a complete 2-D map of the depth and flow patterns.

"In three to five days, I could get a complete 3-D picture of the Clark Fork, from Hellgate Canyon to the Bitterroot," he says. "That's impossible to do with conventional hydraulic modeling."

So here was Lorang, having developed an unconventional use for Acoustic Doppler Velocity Profilers for his own purposes, but imagining countless other projects where the new technology could be invaluable.

"But I'm a researcher," he says. "I don't know how to go from this to finding investors and setting up a company." And that's where Fanguy's UM department comes in.

"We encourage faculty to think about commercial applications to their research," Fanguy says. In Lorang's case, he saw "the potential to create jobs through groundbreaking technology."

After some initial discussions, Fanguy had Lorang explain the River Analyzer concept to UM's Commercialization Advisory Board. The seven-person group is made up of one faculty member, Associate Professor Michael Braun of the University's School of Business Administration, and professionals from the private sector – a business attorney, an entrepreneur and people involved in private equity and venture capital firms.

Then several student-led teams from UM's business school became involved in the process, conducting market research and exploring potential business models under the direction of faculty members Klaus Uhlenbruck and Jakki Mohr.

That all led to a dramatic shift in the business plan for River Analyzer. Originally conceived as a company that would sell the software that does the work, it's now seen as a company that would do the work, period – contracting its services out to gather, process and sell the data.

"It's shifted from a software sales model to a service-based model,"Fanguy says. "We're actively working with Mark and his team to put together a commercialization package that will allow him to take it to market."

It took an entire UM team to get to the point of being ready to launch, Lorang says, including researchers, students, business school faculty, an advisory board and the technology transfer office.

Fanguy says there's still a long way to go, but River Analyzer illustrates how research-derived technology has the potential to not only launch new businesses, but also provide learning experiences for students.

"Who knows?" Fanguy says. "It's possible that one of our business school students ends up working for a River Analyzer company."

And it all started when someone wondered what would happen if some riprap was removed.

— By Vince Devlin

Article from Research View Spring 2011.