URI professors to use drones and robots to research harmful algae

The project, led by a Dartmouth professor, will be funded by a $3M NSF grant

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 4, 2019 – Freshwater lakes and ponds provide many ecological benefits, such as drinking water and food, but they are increasingly being threatened by harmful algae.

The cyanobacteria blooms, also known as blue-green algae, affect water quality and pose a risk to human health through toxins that can damage multiple organ systems. In addition, the deaths of numerous dogs caused by exposure to blue-green algae were reported this past summer.

URI Assistant Professor Paolo Stegagno is collaborating with a team of scientists from other colleges to develop and deploy high-tech tools to understand where, when, and how cyanobacterial blooms form.

Stegagno, whose expertise is in robotics and drones, will work with researchers from Bates College, Colby College, Dartmouth College, the University of New Hampshire and the University of South Carolina. Complementing Stegagno’s skills, many of those professors are known for their research in freshwater ecology, computer science and geospatial science.

Blue-green algae bloom. Photo by NASA.
Blue-green algae bloom. Photo by NASA.

“It’s rare to have researchers from so many different specialties converge to study a problem like this,” said Alberto Quattrini Li, an assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth and the project lead. “By working together, we can increase the amount of data that is collected and increase prediction capabilities.”

Changes in land-use and the climate are considered the main causes of cyanobacteria, but much is still unknown about what influences the timing and location of blooms in individual lakes.

Quattrini Li met Stegagno while visiting URI in April 2018. The two natives of Italy hit it off and stayed in touch, but this will be their first time working together.

“Paolo’s expertise with aerial drones and his work on multi-spectral sensors will be a great benefit on this project,” said Quattrini Li.

Stegagno will develop the drone and remote sensing technology to perform aerial surveys of Barber Pond and Yawgoo Pond near URI. Using surface robots, URI ocean engineering professors Stephen Licht and Christopher Roman will survey the ponds from sea level.

“The surface vehicles and drones will be connected to better pinpoint the location of cyanobacterial blooms,” said Stegagno. “The surface vehicles will collect data such as oxygen and chlorophyll concentrations in the water, while the drones will collect imagery to visually identify blooms. The robots will communicate with each other and direct each other to areas that are suspected to have blooms to obtain confirmation.”

Undergraduate and graduate students in Stegagno’s robotics lab will also play important roles in the research.

“They will develop the drone hardware, software and sensors to detect and monitor cyanobacterial blooms,” said Stegagno. “They will also program and operate the autonomous surface vehicles and participate in the data collection campaigns.”

Since cyanobacterial blooms are most prevalent in the summer, Stegagno doesn’t expect the URI team to conduct their field work until at least April 2020.

This project is funded by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The multi-year grant is part of the NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), designed to promote scientific progress nationwide.

If the timing and location of the cyanobacterial blooms can be predicted, action can then be taken to protect public health in recreational lakes and ponds.