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Robots on patrol in Lake Erie may help save lives

AccuWeather logo AccuWeather 8/21/2019 amanda.schmidt

What may appear to some as a torpedo soaring through the water, is actually a device that may help scientists detect potential health hazards. Robots are diving underwater to hunt down harmful algae blooms (HABs) to gather data that could help save lives and refine forecasts for blooms in Lake Erie, as well as other bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico.

Algae are simple photosynthetic organisms that live in the sea and freshwater. HABs occur when they grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. HABs can have an array of negative impacts on ecosystems and humans, according to the National Ocean Service (NOS).

In fact, just a few weeks ago, a toxic algae bloom killed three dogs that were playing at a local pond near midtown Wilmington, North Carolina.

AccuWeather National Weather Reporter Jonathan Petramala traveled to Toledo, Ohio, to demonstrate how these underwater robots patrol Lake Erie. These robots help researchers better understand a harmful algae bloom that plagues the lake on an annual basis.

While the robots may to be a weapon, it is actually a Thethys class long-range autonomous vehicle. There are currently two of these roaming the lake near Toledo, mapping and measuring toxicity of an algae bloom.

At the time that Petramala visited the lake, there was a severe, harmful agal bloom on the lake that the robots were examining.

Algae robots © Provided by Accuweather, Inc Algae robots

Underwater robots are on patrol in Lake Erie helping researchers better understand a harmful algae bloom that plagues the lake on an annual basis. AccuWeather's Jonathan Petramala takes us under the sea to see what they are getting. (AccuWeather/ Jonathan Petramala)

It's capable of working completely autonomously for up to three weeks at a time and travel close to 1,000 miles before requiring recharging

"It has the ability to be out there in the field acquiring data over the entire period of a bloom, for example, so what we call from bloom to bust," Ben Raanan, an expert with Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, told Petramala.

It has also been proven to be able to overcome even unseen obstacles

"What you're seeing here are the markings of the teeth," Raanan said, explaining that the vehicle was attacked by a great white shark in Monterrey Bay. "It had the whole vehicle in its mouth."

Despite the attack, the vehicle completed its three-week mission.

"We feel that if it hadn't had those markings, I don't know that we would have ever known," Raanan said to Petramala. Raanan highlighted both large markings and scratches that covered the exterior of the device.

These robots will help scientists to overcome some of the challenges that exist with current algae detection devices. Current technology, such as satellites have their limits forecasting this bloom. Satellite images on a cloudy day has its limitations, Steve Ruberg, an expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, said to Petramala. Even thin and whispy clouds can render a satellite basically useless.

Not only do the toxic blooms impact swimming and fishing activities, but they also have an impact on local drinking water.

Cities like Toledo acquire their drinking water from Lake Erie. While daily testing and treatment helps ensure the water is safe, the constant data stream that these robots can deliver could help make forecasting more accurate.

"Having that information, water intake managers and other managers in the region are using that to make decisions about how to treat their water, which they're doing successfully, but having that information really helps them do their job better," Ruberg said.

In August 2014, Toledo city officials issued a "Do Not Drink" advisory for residents served by Toledo Water. The advisory was issued after chemical tests confirmed the presence of unsafe levels of the algal toxin Microcystin in the drinking water plant's finished water, EcoWatch reported.

The advisory spanned across three counties in Ohio and one in Michigan, leaving more than 400,000 people in the Toledo area without drinking water.

While these vehicles will not destroy these harmful algae blooms, they are already helping researchers better understand them.

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