Sudbury robot takes on algae problem

In Norse mythology, Odin was the Allfather, progenitor of all the gods, possessed of the wisdom of the ages.

The Odin that skimmed the surface of Simon Lake on Tuesday seemed a humble craft to bear such a name,… until its potential became apparent.

Designed and built by a local tech startup named Northern Ontario Robotics Solutions and Equipment, or NORSE, Odin is a robotic algae skimmer, a vehicle its creators liken to a remote-controller Roomba designed to clear lakes of that much-maligned green scum.

There were minor technical difficulties, namely an undercharged battery. But media and other onlookers got a good glimpse at how Odin, which looks much like a small pontoon boat with a ramp on its bow, travels through thick mats of algae and hauls it via a conveyor belt from the surface of the water to its deck.

NORSE staff controlled the craft wirelessly from shore, using a video game controller and laptop, while some in attendance broke into applause.

“I think everything was very smooth,” smiled Xuan Han, chief operating officer at NORSE. “Everything went as planned and the showing is pretty great from the community. We’re very excited.”

NORSE staff Han, Colin Roos, Matteo Neville, Alex Bertrand and Edmund Noble are recent graduates of Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School and former members of its robotics team.

“Last June, we were all graduating from high school and we were all members of the first robotics team there,” said Roos, NORSE CEO. “We learned a lot about building an entire product in a very short period of time and solving a problem with that product, and that product happened to be a robot. We said, ‘This is really fun. We’d like to do this as out full-time job.’ ”

Lily Noble, Edmund’s mother and an active member of the environmental community, suggested the apply their skills to fixing the algae problem at Simon Lake.

“We came out here, we played around in the lake, we got our feet wet – literally,” Roos said. “We said, ‘This is a great opportunity for us. Let’s see what we can do with it.’ ”

They approached the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT), which provided a workspace and guidance, and it wasn’t long until they returned to Simon with a working prototype.

“We took only 26 days, from concept to actually working in the lake,” Roos said. “It worked out better than we expected. We were able to pick up almost 300 pounds of algae in 15 minutes. To clean up the whole lake, we’re looking at about two weeks, running eight hours a day.”

Theirs is, as far as they know, a unique piece of technology. There are much larger pieces of equipment for removing algae, but those are for deeper water. Odin can operate in water as shallow as eight inches.

Few in the city, whether members of the lake stewardship council, homeowners, swimmers or boaters, would be sorry to see a reduction in algae, including the toxic varieties that occasionally close local beaches.

“Algae is a tremendous issue in Northern Ontario,” Han said. “It has become a huge issue over the past decade, in Ontario and the rest of North America, and pretty much all over the world, and we would like to tackle it with a smart, intelligent solution.”

The algae Odin collects makes excellent compost, Han said.

“It has a high phosphorus content and high nitrogen content,” Han said. “Pretty much everything you would find in a lake in excess is contained in the algae.

“We’re also looking to explore the option of biofuel, because algae has a very high lipid content. It’s an exciting new avenue for us to explore.”

Algae is present throughout the water column, but an excess of nutrients, including phosphates, cause the organisms to grow and float to the surface, creating the scum that Odin removes.

Charles Ramcharan is an associate professor at Laurentian, who has advised the NORSE team for the last few months. He said removing the algae may be quite beneficial for the lake ecosystem.

“Right now, most of the algae we’re taking out is to accomplish an aesthetic goal, to increase water quality for human use,” Ramcharan said. “We’re not sure yet if we’re taking out a significant amount of phosphorus, which is what causes these algal blooms. We still have to do the science behind that. What we really need for these lakes is a phosphorus budget, to tell us what effect the removal would have, what effect other mitigation efforts may have, in terms of solving the blue-green algae problem. But I think this technology is the way of the future.”


Photo caption: Ben Leeson/The Sudbury Star Staff from Northern Ontario Robotics Solutions and Equipment, or NORSE, demonstrate Odin, a robotic algae skimmer, at Simon Lake on Tuesday.

View original article at: Sudbury robot takes on algae problem


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