Robots, other high-tech devices dive in to water, algae research

[USA] From drones to robots, water-quality research is rapidly going more high tech.

NASA, in conjunction with the Sinclair National Unmanned Aerial Systems Training and Certification Center at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, believes it is a year or two away from having drones patrol western Lake Erie algae from the sky, gathering digital images hundreds of times sharper than what has been gathered in recent years by manned aircraft and satellites. The first test run occurred in September.

And while robots aren’t particularly new — scientists have used remote-controlled cameras at the bottom of Lake Erie and other large bodies of water for years — robotic devices are becoming increasingly more popular, versatile, and sophisticated.

In the summer of 2015, UC-Davis researcher Steven Morgan’s lab began deploying underwater robots made from old fire extinguishers.
In the summer of 2015, UC-Davis researcher Steven Morgan’s lab began deploying underwater robots made from old fire extinguishers.

One of many examples is in northern California’s Bodega Bay, the windiest part of the Golden State shoreline and one of the most popular spots for oceanographers because of the dynamic activity those steady gusts produce in the water.

Bodega Bay is northwest of San Francisco. Much like that city’s famously windy Candlestick Park baseball stadium, the wind at Bodega Bay is pretty much constant, unpredictable, and often changing directions.

But to coastal-ocean scientists such as Steven Morgan of the University of California, Davis, that’s just fine.

Mr. Morgan is part of ongoing research into how microscopic marine larvae gets submerged deeper in the Pacific Ocean’s water column and carried away by currents. Learning how plankton and tiny organisms move around and adapt to various conditions can yield clues on how to better protect the fishery.

So, starting in he summer of 2015, his lab began deploying about 50 underwater robots it made from old fire extinguishers.

Each one is equipped with an inflatable bladder that can make the metal canisters as buoyant as a small ocean particle. The hand-held robots also get wired up in a way that allows them to be tracked by GPS and send back data via satellite, helping scientists learn more about temperature, salinity, light, and general habitat conditions larvae need to survive.

“They’re sophisticated devices,” Mr. Morgan said during a recent boat tour with journalists attending the national Society of Environmental Journalists conference. “They can tell us exactly where they are in the ocean.”

He jokingly said the souped-up metal canisters make it possible to track microscopic larvae the way “you might track a lion with a collar across the Serengeti.”

The underwater robots are retrieved once every two weeks.

Some Great Lakes scientists who were told about the devices said they found the UC-Davis research in Bodega Bay interesting, although they weren’t sure how useful it could be in the Toledo area because of western Lake Erie’s shallowness, its number of fishing boats, and fishing nets.

Besides, a different type of robot with California roots was quietly deployed off Little Cedar Point near the eastern tip of Maumee Bay last summer.

Tim Davis, research scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, said it was the first time in the world a second-generation environmental sample processor was used in freshwater.

That type of robot, Mr. Davis said, is a larger, stationary device used to aid in early detection of a toxic algae bloom. It was positioned in that location to help be a sentinel for Toledo’s water intake.

Developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute south of San Francisco, the device has been used to monitor harmful algal blooms such as red tide in saltwater.

The next generation of that robot, now under development, will be mobile. They will be able to search and follow algal blooms instead of just waiting for them to arrive, Mr. Davis said.

Great Lakes scientists have a good idea how algae moves, based on what they know about wind speeds and computer modeling of current flow, combined with aerial surveillance and satellite images.

But getting mobile robots in the next two or three years could take that research to another level, he said.

“The mobile technology is forthcoming,” Mr. Davis said.

Two deployments of the stationary device, weeks apart, are planned for the next algae season, which typically spans from early March into mid-October.

“There’s a lot of neat technology coming out that’s really going to help us improve our observational capacities,” Mr. Davis said.

Justin Chaffin, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory research director, said submersibles area used in marine science that are shaped like little torpedoes and can be programmed to go back and forth between locations, collecting or transmitting data along the way. The hope is to develop one capable of measuring microcystin, the toxin produced by microcystis.

“So, it is a developing technology,” Mr. Chaffin said.

University of Toledo algae researcher Tom Bridgeman has been studying the vertical migration of microcystis algae particles, while George Bullerjahn, a Bowling Green State University algae researcher, said he supports efforts to “wire up the lake with sensors.”

“We have a pretty good idea now how these things [algae particles] move with wind events,” Mr. Bullerjahn said.

Kelly Frey, Ottawa County sanitary engineer, said water-treatment plant operators would benefit from robotic sensors that could travel with harmful algal blooms, known as HABs.

“Having the ability to predict accurate HAB migration patterns throughout the lake would be a huge improvement from the current quasi-scientific guess,” Mr. Frey said. “The water treatment industry has a monumental task in treating the water. Obviously, help from meteorologist and oceanographers is greatly appreciated.”

Advancements in robotics also can make frequent monitoring more affordable.

“It’s getting pretty sophisticated,” Mr. Morgan said. “We’ve come a long way from scuba diving.”

 

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