Discovering Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) with Drones

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Discovering Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) with Drones

Virginia Institute of Marine Science Campus, Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Virginia Institute of Marine Science Campus, Credit: Wikimedia Commons

While operating his drone near the York River in Virginia, Donglai Gong accidentally found what turned out to be a harmful algal bloom or HAB. Donglai, an assistant professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point, noticed something out of the ordinary, became curious and then captured a few aerial photos.

One day in late July, Donglai Gong was piloting his little quadcopter above his house when he noticed his drone camera picking up something odd in the York River below.

“There were features, like, streaks of darkness,” Gong recalled Wednesday at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point. Gong is an assistant professor studying the physics of coastal and polar oceanography.

“And, being a physicist, I had no idea what biological processes could be causing that. So I took some pictures. They looked pretty.”

He emailed those pictures to VIMS colleagues, many of whom were biologists who knew exactly what was going on: a harmful algal bloom, or HAB.

VIMS uses drones to find, study algal blooms

This random event quickly led to something larger.

Scientists in Virginia say that drones may help them spot algae blooms that are harmful to the environment and to human health.

They have already been working with NASA on ways to identify algae species using satellite data. Iris Anderson, professor and biologist, said scientists are now wondering if those same methods can be employed using drones.

Algae blooms can be harmful. When they decay, they can suck oxygen from the water, endangering or killing marine life. Some can be toxic, posing possible health concerns for fishermen and swimmers.

Scientists say drones may help to spot harmful algae blooms

Drones are the next evolutionary step in HAB detection; that’s why they are being used by NASA in similar programs outside of the Virginia area.

NASA’s Glenn Research Center has been using hyperspectral imagers mounted to manned aircraft in order to monitor toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie for several years, according to Roger Tokars, an engineer in the center’s optics and photonics branch. This month, it miniaturized its sensing equipment so that it could monitor the blooms from unmanned drones, a potential big step forward in the program.

“Drones provide high-resolution mapped images of smaller targets such as rivers, streams, and around specific waypoints,” said Tokars. “Additionally, the portability and ease of use could allow for a researcher or water monitoring personnel to quickly and easily map out an area close at hand. …A drone program builds upon [the manned flights] by giving an additional option at our disposal that can be used below the clouds, with high resolution and easier, more flexible deployment.”

NASA Drone Program Could Have Lake Erie Soaring Past Toxic Algae

This is just another exciting example of drones causing a positive disruption. Drones offer a faster and more cost effective way to track dangerous algal blooms when compared to manned aircraft. With drones impacting more and more industries, it’s easy to see why they are generating so many new career opportunities for trained drone operators. If you’d like to get trained and certified, then register today. We offer the very best, hands-on drone training courses in 50 different cities nationwide.


By |2017-11-09T09:26:07-08:00November 9th, 2017|Aerial Photography/Videography, Drone Aided Research, Drones|Comments Off on Discovering Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) with Drones

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Sam Estrin
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