Iowa Researchers Use Drones to Detect Harmful Algae Blooms in Water

A team of researchers from the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa plans on deploying drones to monitor water quality and safety more effectively. This new remote-sensing drone is specifically aimed at improving the detection of harmful algae blooms (when algae grows naturally fast) in Iowa’s water. The blooms have been found to produce extremely powerful toxins that pose serious health risks to the general population through both drinking water and recreational activities such as boating and swimming. In addition to adverse affect on public health, these algae blooms have a negative impact on economies which depend on tourist activities.

Throughout the summer and fall, when the harmful algae blooms in water sources, the team of researchers will deploy a drone featuring a multi-spectral camera to assess the infestation of algae blooms in Iowa’s freshwater lakes. As these blue-green algae, called cyanobacteria, can grow uncontrollably, development of efficient monitoring methods for accurately predicting an algae bloom events is a key goal of water safety monitoring programs and the main interest to researchers who examine the ecology of aquatic ecosystems.

The drone project will be led by Assistant Professors Gregory LeFevre and Corey Markfort, who hopes to use drone imaging to predict more accurately when these hazardous blooms will occur. Likewise, they hope to help Iowans make better and more efficient decisions on how to protect the community’s water supplies. According to Gregory LeFevre, harmful algae blooms are becoming a critical problem across the globe, but they are increasingly common in the state of Iowa.

Traditional methods of detecting blooms are time-consuming and require a lot of effort. Corey Markfort believes that drones will make detection and forecasting of algae blooms in Iowa’s water supplies easier, faster and more accurate than conventional methods. Originally designed to evaluate wake patterns on wind farms, the drone which will be used to conduct research on these harmful algae has also been used for several engineering projects as well as for studying snowdrifts.

According to Sarah Douglas, a graduate research assistant who also works on this drone project, a smaller, commercially available drone could also be deployed for algae bloom mapping. However, the team will focus on using the imaging abilities of this particular drone due to the specific observational tools built into it. In the near future, the University of Iowa researchers want to use the same drone to develop certain techniques aimed at protecting both people and livestock from potential cyanobacteria poisoning as well as make the process of detecting these toxic-generating algae blooms a lot more cost-effective and faster.

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