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Aeolian Research 22 (2016) 127–134

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Aeolian Research
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Design and initial testing of a piezoelectric sensor to quantify aeolian

sand transport
Ruben Raygosa-Barahona, Gabriel Ruiz-Martinez ⇑, Ismael Mariño-Tapia, Emilio Heyser-Ojeda
Departamento de Recursos del Mar, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN, Mérida Yucatán 97310, Mexico

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: This paper describes a sensor for measuring the mass flux of aeolian sand transport based on a low-cost
Received 18 March 2016 piezo-electric transducer. The device is able to measure time series of aeolian sand transport. Maximum
Revised 2 August 2016 fluxes of 27 mg per second can be achieved. The design includes a sand trap, an electronic amplifier cir-
Accepted 11 August 2016
cuit and an embedded system for data collection. A field test was performed, where the basis for signal
interpretation and the corresponding measurements of aeolian sand transport are presented. The sensor
successfully measures fluxes driven by sea breezes of 10 ms1, showing the importance of this process for
dune-building in the region.
Aeolian sediment transport
Impact sensor
Ó 2016 Published by Elsevier B.V.
Piezoelectric sensor
Field instrumentation
Mass sediment flux

1. Introduction Aeolian sand scientists have implemented different methods to

measure sediment transport. One of the methods used to quantify
The quantification of aeolian sediment transport is necessary to aeolian transport is sand traps which capture the moving sand
understand the patterns of erosion, accretion and other morphody- grains in containers (Bagnold, 1954; Horikawa and Shen, 1960;
namic phenomena (i.e. bedform development) forced by wind Leatherman, 1978; Wilson and Cooke, 1980; Fryrear, 1986; Arens
action on beaches, agriculture soils and deserts. Aeolian sediment and van der Lee, 1995; Jackson, 1996; Nickling and McKenna
transport occurs when the wind blows over a sand surface or soil Neuman, 1997; Sherman et al., 2014). However, the high frequency
and its particles are moved by the resulting shear stress. Particles variability of aeolian transport needs to be resolved and for this
can be lifted and transported momentarily in the air (saltating or reason, electronic instruments have been developed to record data
bouncing), or can be transported by rolling, or sliding (reptating) continuously at sampling rates of 1 Hz or higher (Sherman et al.,
in the layer of sand close to the bed. In this study the aeolian trans- 1998; van der Wal, 1998; Baas and Sherman, 2006).
port measured is produced by all the particles that move over the Aeolian transport instruments include acoustic, piezoelectric,
surface of the sand by rolling, reptating (sliding), or saltating and photo electronic sensors, electronic sand traps (weight recor-
(bouncing). The quantification of aeolian transport has important ders) and a combination of the above (Namikas, 2002; Barchyn
implications for the development of coastal dunes, which are nat- and Hugenholtz, 2010; Ellis et al., 2012). The acoustic sensors
ural elements that influence the stability of the coast (Hesp, 2011). record the sound produced when grains of sand impact a mem-
In these environments, aeolian sediment transport is influenced by brane which works as a diaphragm and vibrates, generating an
variables such as the magnitude and direction of the wind, topog- electronic signal from which it infers the number of impacts that
raphy of the beach where the wind is acting, dune vegetation, vari- are produced by the moving sand grains (Spaan and van den
ability in surface moisture and sediment textural characteristics, Abeele, 1991; Ellis et al., 2009; Yurk et al., 2013; Poortinga et al.,
including sorting, skewness and kurtosis. The combination of these 2015). The piezoelectric sensors detect the impacts of the grains
factors changes with time and results in considerable spatial and using a highly sensitive ceramic sensor that generates small elec-
temporal variability of aeolian sand transport in coastal trical pulses which are proportional to the mass of the sediments
environments. that are carried by the wind (Baas, 2004; Udo et al., 2008; Udo,
2009; Swann and Sherman, 2013). The photo electronic sensors
detect the grains of sand as they cross a laser beam, interrupting
⇑ Corresponding author at: Ant. Carretera a Progreso km. 6, Cordemex, 97310 the signal. The characteristics of said interruption (variation of
Mérida Yucatán, Mexico.
the laser wave) provide information on the size and number of
E-mail address: (G. Ruiz-Martinez).
1875-9637/Ó 2016 Published by Elsevier B.V.
128 R. Raygosa-Barahona et al. / Aeolian Research 22 (2016) 127–134

particles passing the sensor (Jackson and McCloskey, 1997; Mikami where m is the total mass, Kc is a calibration constant which needs
et al., 2005; Redmond et al., 2010; Hugenholtz and Barchyn, 2011; to be found, and t stands for the time.
Barchyn et al., 2014). Bauer and Namikas (1998) presented sand As will be shown in the next section, experimental tests suggest
traps based on an electro-mechanical instrument which automat- that it is enough to calculate only one value of Kc since there is no
ically derived the total mass of the sediments that were caught significant difference between a Kc calculated for the D50 and val-
in the traps. Schönfeldt (2012) implemented an electronic device ues for individual size fractions.
which uses acoustic sensors and a digital web camera to measure
the mass of sediments that are moved by the wind on a beach.
2.2. Sampling rate
As with any other type of sensor, sand transport sensors should
be calibrated using a previously calibrated instrument, neverthe-
A heuristic procedure showed that a 10 kHz sampling rate pro-
less there is no consensus amongst aeolian transport researchers
vides a smooth measure of the signal produced by a grain of sand
as to which sensor is optimal for quantifying aeolian mass trans-
of approximately 0.5 mm, which free falls from at height of 10 cm
port (Barchyn and Hugenholtz, 2010; Sherman et al., 2011); most
(Fig. 1). Subsequent tests were carried out using sand samples
of the calibrations are based on acoustic or piezoelectric methods.
comprising a range of grain sizes showing that the sampling rates
Regardless of which method is used, there is still a need for
also work for smaller and larger grains. The sampled signal is
integrated to produce a measure of the mass. Two versions of the
The goal of this study is to present the development of a piezo-
prototype were developed: a standalone version for field
electric sensor to measure the rate of sand mass transport at low
deployment, which saves the cumulative data over a 10 s time
costs with reasonable accuracy. The complete electronic system
interval and a desktop version for calibrating purposes. The
amounts to approximately $50 USD, which includes circuit boards,
desktop version sends the accumulated data every 1.5 ms through
resistors, diodes, microprocessors, and a piezo-electric sensor. This
a serial port. The supplied data is received by a computer running
could allow the sensor to be massively deployed in networks. The
purpose of using a piezoelectric device is that it can provide a
direct measurement of the force exerted by the sand grains. The
sensor has a resolution of 2.5  104 g, when calibrated in the lab- 2.3. Calibration process
oratory with a high precision electronic weighing scale.
The article is organized as follows: Section two presents the Using the Basset–Boussinesq–Oseen (B.B.O.) equation to solve
methodology including the calculation of mass, the calibration pro- acceleration (see Appendix 2) it is possible to compute the fall
cedure and a case study in the field. Section three presents the velocity of a spherical particle under the influence of gravity as it
results, and four and five present the discussions and conclusions. falls through a fluid (Graf, 1984). Baas (2004) presented a correc-
tion of the B.B.O. equation as a function of grain diameter assuming
2. Methodology that all grains follow a vertical trajectory in the flux, neglecting the
inter-grain effects. Fig. A.4 in Appendix 3 shows the effects of this
The piezoelectric effect refers to the capability of certain mate- correction, which shows that the final velocity of a grain falling in
rials to produce an amount of electric charge when subjected to a the flume, after a critical fall height of 0.5 cm is a function of grain
force. The amount of charge produced can be represented in a sim- size alone. This was done under the assumption that the mass of a
plified form as sand grain is a function of its diameter, neglecting variation in
other physical characteristics such as density, chemical composi-
q ¼ K1F ð1Þ
tion or porosity of the grain. During the tests carried out in this
where q is the electrical charge, K1 is a constant which depends on study the previous assumption was valid. After recovering the sand
the physical characteristics and dimensions of the material, and F is sample from the trap, a calibration process is needed in order to
the acting force. overcome the differences in the sediment composition and
Because piezoelectric materials are also capacitors, they must properties.
follow the capacitor equation:
Z t
1 q
V¼ idt ¼ ð2Þ
C 0 C

where i ¼ dq
, also called the electrical current in amperes, which can
be approximated with the time (t) derivative of charge (q); V is the
voltage and C the capacitance in Farads. Details on the principles of
operation and the electronics amplifier of the sensor are presented
in Appendix 1.

2.1. Mass computation

According to Eq. (A.3), (Appendix 2) the signal obtained by the

combined embedded-piezoelectric system is related to the
momentum of the mass of sands grains impacting the sensor.
Assuming that the sand grains are spherical and that the D50
parameter can represent the characteristic size (and therefore the
mass) of a sand sample, then we can assume the same fall velocity
for all grains. This assumption results in the next equation:
m ¼ Kc dmdt ð3Þ Fig. 1. The amplified signal produced by a 0.5 mm sand grain in free fall. Note that
we could consider a 200 ms interval in which the signal vanishes at a constant rate.
R. Raygosa-Barahona et al. / Aeolian Research 22 (2016) 127–134 129

A simple procedure was followed to calibrate the piezoelectric

sensor by sieving the sand to obtain the D50 value which describes
the diameter of the sand grains that form the sediment sample.
The calibration of the piezoelectric was performed on a vertical
sand fall ‘flume’. The devices consist of the following elements
from top to bottom (Fig. 2): (1) a funnel with a small orifice at
the bottom which acts as a dispenser, (2) a cylindrical flume tube
made of acrylic with a diameter of 76.2 mm, (3) the sensor
mounted horizontally with the center aligned with the sand grains
stream, (4) a high precision electronic weighing scale to collect the
grains and obtain the mass. The grains were left to free fall into the
funnel by hand. The flow rates could be controlled by adjusting
the size of the orifice at the bottom of the funnel. Readings from
both the sensor and the scale were logged to compare the relation-
ship between both measures. Taking a sample of sand grains from
the sieved D50 fraction, we throw sand into the funnel. In the bot-
tom the electronic weighing scale obtains the accumulated mass of
the sample.
Fig. 3 shows the linear relationship between the mass obtained
with the scale and the response of the piezoelectric sensor. Test C1
was performed with sieved sand released from a height of 25 cm,
in test C2, the sand was released from 50 cm, while in test C3
the height was increased to 60 cm. There were no significant differ-
Fig. 3. Comparison between the measurements obtained from the sensor and the
ences in the response of the sensor, which is in accordance with the total mass obtained by direct mass measurement.
results of Baas (2004). Test C4 was performed with a sample of silt
released from a height of 50 cm. As we expected the counts were
reduced but the linear relationship was maintained, reinforcing Table 1
the idea that a site specific calibration is needed. Tests C5, C6, C7, Comparison between different tests, note that in the worst case (Test C4) the linear
relationship was maintained and the correlation was approximately 0.998.
and C8 were carried out with samples of unsieved sand, which
included the silt of test C4. Comparing the results from C1, C2, Sample Falling Counts R2
C3 (sieved sand) and C5, C6, C7, C8 (unsieved sand) we can assure height
that the mass of the sample of sand grains can be approximated
considering their representative D50 calibration curve. As depicted Test C1 Sieved sand (D50 = 0.389 mm) 25 234700 0.998128
Test C2 Sieved sand (D50 = 0.389 mm) 50 211870 0.999890
in Table 1, the correlation coefficient, R2, was approximately 0.99 Test C3 Sieved sand (D50 = 0.389 mm) 60 229960 0.999928
in all cases. Test C4 Silts (D50 < 0.062 mm) 50 59050 0.998108
Fig. 4 presents the cumulative probability curve of the sand Test C5 Unsieved sand 25 160520 0.999988
sample used in the calibration processes where the range of sedi- Test C6 Unsieved sand 25 168200 0.999964
Test C7 Unsieved sand 25 150060 0.999991
ment sizes can be seen.
Test C8 Unsieved sand 25 162460 0.999969

3. Results

3.1. Field test

Following Swann and Sherman (2013), the piezoelectric sensor

was installed inside a buried sand trap below a funnel in order to
measure time series of aeolian sand transport in the field. The sand
trapped by the system was retained to validate the mass estimated
by the sensor. Fig. 5 shows a diagram of the sand trap system.
The funnel-sensor system was installed inside a polyethylene
container to protect the batteries and the electronics. The trap
was deployed for three days on the beach face close to a vegetated
dune in Telchac, Yucatán, Mexico (20.936°N, 89.30°W), as shown in
Fig. 6. This region is subject to erosion problems and the develop-
ment of dune systems is crucial for the protection of the coast. A
weather station (Davis 6152 Wireless Vantage Pro2 Weather Sta-
tion) is located 150 m onshore from the sand trap, where an
anemometer is installed at a height of 10 m from the ground. The
vertical sand fall ‘flume’ was aligned perpendicular to the NE,
which is the dominant wind direction in the region (Ruiz et al.,
2016). Although, since it was leveled to the ground, sand from
any direction could potentially fall into it.
Fig. 7 shows a picture of the systems installed on the beach. The
Fig. 2. The test device used to estimate the calibration constant Kc. sand trap (white container) includes a vertical sand fall ‘flume’ and
130 R. Raygosa-Barahona et al. / Aeolian Research 22 (2016) 127–134

Fig. 4. Semilog cumulative probability curve of the sand sample used in the calibration processes (Test C1, C2 and C3). The main values are: D50 = 0.389 mm (1.362 /-units),
moderately well sorted, coarsely skewed, and mesokurtic.

the funnel-sensor system (Fig. 5). The vertical sand fall ‘flume’ is
the only aperture where sand can enter the trap.
Fig. 8 shows the behavior of the mass transport of sand for the
three days of the field test. Increased aeolian sand transport tends
to occur preferentially between 16:00 and 20:00 with peaks coin-
ciding with the maximum wind velocity which was from the NE-
ENE quadrant. This behavior of the wind is typical for sea breezes
which predominate in the region (Enríquez et al., 2010). Wind
velocities above 7 m/s are necessary to accumulate sand in the

4. Discussions

In this paper, we have considered the assumptions that the sand

grains are spherical, we have also assumed that the fall velocity
calculated with the D50 diameter is adequate to characterize the
whole sample, which might not be entirely true because the termi-
Fig. 5. Diagram of the sand trap used (the design was based on Swann and
Sherman, 2013).
nal fall velocity depends on the grain size. Nevertheless, tests using
an unsieved sample showed the same linear response as for a

Fig. 6. Geographical location of Telchac (image from Google Earth).

R. Raygosa-Barahona et al. / Aeolian Research 22 (2016) 127–134 131

Fig. 7. Sand trap deployed in Telchac, Yucatán, Mexico. a) Trap being installed and buried in the sand, b) final view of the chimney at ground level.

Fig. 8. Graph of winds recorded in Telchac and the sediment fluxes. Panel a) shows the wind direction (stars), panel b) presents the relationship between the sediment fluxes
measured by the sensor and the wind speed (circles). Grey bars highlight the peaks in sediment flux, which are identified during the afternoon when the breezes from ENE
and NE occur.

sieved sample with only D50 sizes. We also show that sand grains source and not two sources as commonly used in operational
with a smaller D50 produce a lower response (Fig. 3), however amplifiers. To reduce the effect of noise, we also remove signals
the relationship is still linear. To overcome the variability imposed below 200 mV and apply an analog low pass filter prior to feeding
by the sand grain variations (variations in the D50) calibration the signal into the analog-to-digital converter, making the signal
needs to be performed wherever the sensor is deployed. The sensor more robust. In other sensors (Swann and Sherman, 2013; Sensit,
essentially differs from the one presented by Sherman et al. (2011) 2013) the signals are processed digitally, requiring a large proces-
in terms of the methodology used to process the signal provided by sor, which is not always ideal for transportable embedded systems.
the sensor. The signal is processed (modified in size and shape) and Also the interpretation of the calculation of the mass is obtained
then sampled, while in Sherman et al. (2011) the signal is sampled based on the momentum, which is linear with respect to the mass
without any modification of its shape. The sensor presented does and velocity, presenting an important advantage over using energy
not amplify the negative part of the oscillations produced by the (Sensit, 2013) which is quadratic in speed. The sensor was
impacts, unlike other existing sensors (e.g. Swann and Sherman, deployed in a sand trap (Swann and Sherman, 2013); inside the
2013). This is due to the use of an amplifier with a single voltage trap it was assumed that there was no direct effect of the wind,
132 R. Raygosa-Barahona et al. / Aeolian Research 22 (2016) 127–134

and the velocity used to calculate the momentum is only related to

the fall velocity (sediment size). From Fig. 3, we can obtain the res-
olution of the sensor which is 2.5  104 gr/count. As the number
of counts is updated with a frequency of 10 kHz, we can read a
sand flux at a maximum rate of 27 mgr/s.

5. Conclusions

A piezoelectric sensor for the estimation of aeolian transport

has been presented, which includes an electronic circuit to amplify
and condition the signal from the sensor. The complete system
Fig. A.2. Rate of discharge for an equivalent capacitor.
includes an embedded acquisition and data processing system
including an 8-bit ADC with a sampling frequency of 10 kHz and Z T
a resolution of 2.5  104 g. The sensor showed a linear relation- dm v ¼ K Vdt ðA:2Þ
ship between the number of counts and the mass of the samples. 0
The system can be fed by both, batteries or small solar panels. A
where K = K2/C, a constant of proportionality, V is voltage, and v the
case study is shown where aeolian sand transport was measured
velocity of the particle of mass dm, (in our case the mass of a sand
at a beach, showing the importance of NE winds in aeolian trans-
grain). If in Eq. (A.2), we obtain with any other method information
port for dune building. The sensor is economical ($50 USD),
about v, then we could find the value of dm or at least approximate
which makes it attractive for integration into large sensor net-
its behavior. This is fairly simple in our system since v is the fall
works for more complex studies.
velocity of the sand grains in the trap.
A1.2. Sensor amplifier and signal conditioning
The authors thank to Dr. David Valdés Lozano for sharing the
wind record data for Telchac. Our sincere thanks to all the review- Prior to any digital processing procedure, the signal supplied by
ers for their comments and suggestions, which helped to improve any sensor should be treated or conditioned according to the mea-
and enrich this manuscript. Thanks to Gemma Franklin for review- suring devices that will receive the signal. For this purpose we
ing the English grammar. developed the electronic system shown in Fig. A1.3. The sensor
amplifier and signal conditioning are composed of a piezoelectric
disk Kepo KP2310 with a diameter of 23 mm and a 4 kHz resonant
Appendix 1
frequency, a microcontroller Atmel ATmega328, resistors and
diodes. The amplifier circuit is depicted in Fig. A1.3, where every
A1.1. Principles of operation of the piezoelectric sensor
component is labeled, including a letter for the type of component,
and a number of the part to clarify the electronic diagram: ‘‘CONN”
Fig. A1.1 shows a simplified electrical diagram of the sensor. In
is used for connectors, ‘‘R” for resistors, ‘‘D” for diodes, ‘‘C” for
this figure, R1 is the resistance between the piezoelectric element
capacitors, ‘‘U” for the Integrated Circuit and ‘‘OPAMP” for a dual
plates, C1 is the intrinsic capacitance device and F1 is the acting
Operational Amplifier. The Operational Amplifier U3A provides a
first amplification stage for the signal coming from the piezoelec-
Once the acting force has vanished, the resultant charge gener-
tric element. The output signal from the amplifier U3A is passed
ates a voltage which decays at a logarithmic rate; however there is
through a low-pass filter which consists of a capacitor (C1) and a
a time interval (T) in which we could consider a linear rate of dis-
resistor (R3), U3B is a second amplifier which is split into the rec-
charge, as shown in Fig. A1.2.
tifiers D1 and D2. The output signal from D1 decays at a rate deter-
Using this consideration we were able to approximate the act-
mined by the capacitor C3 and the resistor R4. The output signal
ing force over the piezoelectric element as
from D2 is used to trigger the sand grain impact counter.
F ¼ K2T ðA:1Þ
where K2, is a proportionality constant and T is the time interval in A1.2. Embedded system for mass computation and signal processing
which the signal decays to a predetermined voltage level. Taking
the integral of F over the time interval T, and using Eqs. (1), (2) Devices used for monitoring environmental variables often
and (A.1) results in the moment equation: require their own power supply since in most cases they are
installed far from the main electrical networks. Solar panels, bat-
teries, gasoline based, or manual power generators are frequently
used to supply the necessary energy to the instruments. Genera-
tors and solar panels are prone to vandalism and therefore need
full-time supervision. Batteries are small and easy to hide never-
theless the energy supply is finite. Therefore, systems that use bat-
teries should be energy efficient. Embedded systems meet both
specifications; they are small enough and energy friendly. In an
embedded system greater sampling rates mean more power con-
sumption, so the duration of the deployment needs to be balanced
with adequate sampling rates. The microcontroller system Atmel
(ATmega328) has a power requirement of only 60 mA. The voltage
supplied by the amplifier is sampled by the embedded system and
then compared with a predetermined voltage level. If the voltage
sampled is greater than the predefined level, a continuous pulse
Fig. A.1. A simplified diagram for the piezoelectric device. train triggers an incremental counter. This process occurs until
R. Raygosa-Barahona et al. / Aeolian Research 22 (2016) 127–134 133

Fig. A.3. Signal conditioner and amplifier circuit.

Fig. A.4. Depth-velocity trajectories for 2 different grain sizes in flume found by Baas (2004). The graph is reproduced with permission from the author A.C.W. Baas.

the voltage falls below a predetermined level. The value stored in (s); t = l/q the kinematic viscosity (m2 s1); g the gravitational
the counter will be a function of the momentum transferred by acceleration (ms2).
the sand grain to the piezoelectric sensor. The predetermined level
should be adjusted according to the predominant grain size. As an Appendix 3
example, the tests carried out in laboratory for 0.5 mm sand grains
suggested an appropriate threshold value of 200 mv (see Fig. 1 in Fig. A.4 shows the graph for terminal velocity of two different
the main document). Sensor sensitivity can vary slightly due to grain sizes in a flume; Note that for grains with a diameter smaller
capacitance differences. If during the testing process the variance or near 0.6 mm, velocity could be considered constant.
in the capacitance of the sensor is greater than 10%, that piezoelec-
tric sensor is regarded as faulty.

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(1–4), 99–118.
is given by Graf (1984):
Baas, A.C.W., Sherman, D.J., 2006. Spatiotemporal variability of aeolian sand
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a g ðt1 Þ  gðt1 Þ p. 265.
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