Drones joining Lake Erie algae research

[USA] Western Lake Erie may soon have its first drone patrolling algae from the sky, signaling a new era of NASA aerial surveillance for one of the world’s largest sources of fresh surface water.

Razor-sharp, multispectrum images obtained by such low-flying, unmanned aircraft can’t detect algal toxins from the air.

But the information they transmit is far more than anecdotal: Drones give scientists such as geology professor Joe Ortiz of Kent State University the ability to see with far greater precision what types of tiny particles and bits of chlorophyll are in the lake’s water.

Mr. Ortiz told The Blade he developed a calculation method — one he has presented to colleagues at scientific conferences and plans to get formally peer-reviewed soon — in which he can reliably estimate how much deadly algal toxin is in a bloom at a given time, based on associations of what else is seen in the water.

The method developed by Mr. Ortiz isn’t the only potential revolutionary breakthrough in toxin detection.

Wu Lu, an Ohio State University electrical and computer engineering professor, told 20 journalists attending an annual science writers’ workshop on OSU’s Gibraltar Island recently that he is close to developing an affordable, desktop device for water-treatment plant operators that he believes will be able to detect microcystin levels in real time.

His research, funded in large part by Ohio Sea Grant and OSU’s Stone Laboratory, could give operators answers about the prevailing risks of water coming into their intakes, into their plants, or out to the public water system within five minutes.

Chris Winslow, interim Ohio Sea Grant and OSU Stone Laboratory director, told a roomful of mayors and other public officials during a follow-up meeting on the island that Mr. Lu’s research is expected to be finished by the summer or fall of next year.

Drones, the extremely high-resolution images they capture, as well as research and technology developed by both Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Lu are all part of a scientific toolbox being expanded to help avert another water crisis like the one Toledo encountered in 2014, when nearly 500,000 people waited hours at a time for updated test results on water samples sent out to laboratories between Cincinnati and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Devices developed with Mr. Lu’s research are expected to cost no more than a couple thousand dollars apiece, with each chip for testing costing only a buck or two. The equipment would be affordable enough for all water-treatment plants to check their own water in real time, Mr. Winslow said.

Lake Erie’s most common algal toxin is microcystin, which — at 3.5 billion years old — is one of Earth’s oldest-living and dangerous organisms. It killed at least 60 people and sickened dozens others in a Brazilian kidney dialysis center in 1996 and has been on the rise globally the past 20 years.

Drone advantages

Drones have many advantages over satellites and manned aircraft, one of the most important being their ability to fly under clouds.

The biggest thing keeping them from being deployed isn’t a lack of science but funding, according to Mr. Ortiz and NASA’s Roger Tokars, an electrical engineer in the space administration’s optics and photonics branch involved with drone research and manned flights over Lake Erie that NASA began doing two summers ago.

“I actually think the future is now,” Mr. Ortiz said. “We’re going to be seeing this within the next couple of years. Stay tuned for that.”

Later this month, NASA plans to do two test runs with its private-sector partners, which include Dayton-based Sinclair Community College and a Dayton company called Unmanned Aerial Systems.

One is to be at Wilmington Air Park near Wilmington, Ohio.

The other is to be in or near Maumee Bay State Park.

In the case of the latter, the plan is to have an Altavian F6500 drone, also known as a Nova Block III, fly out about a mile off the Lake Erie shoreline.

If all goes as planned, NASA will seek funding to begin drone surveillance in 2017, Mr. Tokars said.

“I think the goal is to provide the means to do that,” he said.

The drone being used is part of the Sinclair National UAS Training and Certification Center at Sinclair Community College in Dayton.

Sinclair is under state funding through the University of Toledo for the flight portion of the project and has self-funded the integration and support efforts since October, Andrew Shepherd, director of Sinclair’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program, said.

“We have been collaborating with NASA Glenn Research Center on the project since last fall, which has included technical support for the integration of their custom designed and built hyperspectral sensor into our F6500 in coordination with the original equipment manufacturer, Altavian,” Mr. Shepherd said.

Sinclair is providing the drone and flight crew. The college said on its website it has been an innovator in drone research since 2008, carrying on the Dayton-area’s connection to aviation that goes back to the city’s association with Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Mr. Tokars said he envisions a day in the not-too-distant future in which there will be multiple drones buzzing over western Lake Erie, gathering digital images with far more pixels than scientists are used to seeing.

“I think drones are becoming more and more prevalent,” Mr. Tokars said. “I would agree the future is now.”

Already in use for agricultural purposes, drones envisioned for Lake Erie will likely cost $15,000 to $20,000 apiece.

They and others used for scientific research are far different from more controversial ones used overseas by the military, Mr. Tokars said.

Scientific drones offer multiple advantages, beginning with their relatively low cost.

As their popularity increases and their price comes down, they could become affordable enough for many water-treatment plants to own one, Mr. Tokars said.

“Drones have some real desirable characteristics,” Mr. Ortiz said. “They’re relatively small, lightweight, and inexpensive compared to manned aircraft.”

Drones don’t need an airport runway. They are launched by hand.

Because they don’t carry people or heavy payloads, they can be deployed in a moment’s notice.

Getting the picture

One of the challenges is miniaturizing digital cameras because many drones likely to be used over Lake Erie can’t carry more than four pounds, Mr. Tokars said.

They can fly as low as 400 feet, offering a view much closer than what NASA’s manned aircraft gets 10,000 to 20,000 feet high, and innumerable times closer and more frequently than what satellites get up in the atmosphere when they pass over the Great Lakes about once every eight days.

“More importantly, that’s underneath the clouds,” he said, explaining how drones can get images manned aircraft and satellites can’t on cloudy days.

Mr. Ortiz sees drones as a revolutionary step in estimating how much toxin exists in each bloom, a question more important to water-treatment plant operators than the size of blooms themselves. A bloom’s toxicity does not necessarily correlate to its size, as documented in 2015 when western Lake Erie had a record bloom for biomass but one that posed relatively little threat for toxicity.

Well, not quite.

Mr. Ortiz said he has determined the 2015 bloom was more toxic in spots than people realized. But he said the worst of those toxins ended up miles off the shoreline — far from water intakes — and in less-traveled open water halfway between Ohio and Canada, probably because of how the bloom grew and how winds blew it around.

The situation was a reminder that the toxicity of a bloom is not evenly dispersed, and perceptions are often based on what people come in contact with, he said.

Mr. Ortiz is an expert in what’s known as hyperspectral imaging.

With hyperspectral imaging, scientists can fingerprint things in water — such as chlorophyll and different types of sediments — based on wavelengths, hundreds of colors, and bands of light, many of which the human eye can’t see. They look for signs of cyanobacteria, dissolved organic material, and particles “that can influence the signal the instrument is getting,” he said.

It doesn’t pick up on individual toxins. But through associations of what else is in a bloom, approximations can be made about the relative toxicity almost in real time, Mr. Ortiz said.

“The toxic part of the bloom seems to be associated with spectral shape and color,” Mr. Ortiz said.

Because drones would fly much closer to the water than manned aircraft and satellites, the images can be sharper and reveal more, he said.

In a recent presentation to other scientists, Mr. Ortiz unveiled a technique he claims can estimate — with pretty good accuracy — the toxicity of a bloom based on images NASA began capturing with manned aircraft over Lake Erie in 2014.

Using a four-seat plane — with two pilots in the front and two scientists in the rear — NASA originally planned four flights over western Lake Erie that summer. But because of the Toledo algae crisis, the agency ended up doing 14.

NASA did 20 flights in 2015, and eight so far this year with plans for about a dozen more.

It does on average two flights a week from July to October, Mr. Tokars said.

Mr. Ortiz said his research is based on multiple sites in Sandusky Bay that NASA’s four-seat aircraft flew over in 2015.

The idea of improving Lake Erie aerial surveillance with a hyperspectral drone system was selected as a research project by a team of young NASA engineers tasked with developing a cutting-edge project, Mr. Tokars said.

Rick Stumpf, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer in Maryland who uses NASA imagery to help produce harmful algal bloom forecasts and bulletins, said drones will be especially helpful in highly targeted areas of Lake Erie, such as around municipal water intakes.

“In those areas, the drone has the potential of identifying bloom location during persistent cloudy conditions by flying under the clouds,” he said.

He and others said it likely isn’t practical to canvass all of Lake Erie with drones on a regular basis.

Given their small size, that would be akin to mowing a large field with a small lawn mower, Mr. Stumpf said.

A bigger benefit, he added, will be more rapid and frequent monitoring of small lakes and along rivers.

“I see this as the real promise,” Mr. Stumpf said. “Satellite is infrequent for small water bodies.”


Photo: Jamie Struewing of Unmanned Aerial Systems launches the Altavian F6500 drone that will fly this month over Lake Erie. Drones offer advantages in monitoring algal blooms.

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