Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, said the test on the Sacramento River using smartphones with global positioning system capabilities could transform the way government agencies monitor one of the state's most precious resources.
The Floating Sensor Network project is intended to test a network of mobile sensors that can be deployed rapidly to provide real-time, high-resolution data in hard-to-map waterways, UC Berkeley reported.
Such data is vital for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, with its complex network of channels that directs drinking water to two-thirds of California's population and provides irrigation water for 3 million acres of agriculture, researchers said.
One hundred robots carrying GPS-enabled smartphones were used in the test, they said.
"The mobile probes we are using could potentially expand coverage in the Delta -- on demand -- to hundreds of miles of natural and manmade channels that are currently under-monitored, and help agencies responsible for managing the state's limited water supply," researcher Alexandre Bayen said.
Such a flexible system could be critical in the event of an emergency, including a levee breach or oil spill, the researchers said.
The sensors could be thrown into action from a dock, shore, boats or even helicopters, they said.