Sinclair drones soar over Erie to spot dangerous algae

Project partners Sinclair with NASA Glenn, Altavian.

A Sinclair Community College drone has soared above Lake Erie in the past week, collecting data that will help NASA engineers and the state better understand the algae blooms that have plagued parts of the lake for years.

It could be the beginning of what Sinclair leaders hope will be a long and fruitful partnership with the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

“We’ve been wanting to find a project to work with NASA Glenn for some time,” said Deb Norris, Sinclair’s vice president of workforce development. “We want to be known for applied research, and this is an excellent example of applied research.”

The partnership is simple: Sinclair knows how to fly drones. And NASA Glenn knows how to build the sensor package that the Sinclair drone is carrying above the great lake.

“We’ve been working with them really since October on the concept and the project,” said Andrew Shepherd, who directs the Sinclair National UAS Training and Certification Center.

State government and University of Toledo funding is fueling the project, Shepherd said. But Sinclair has also put time and effort into integrating the NASA sensor into the drone.

“The real goal of the project was to look at how you could identify a harmful … algae bloom in Lake Erie, really, in any fresh water source,” Shepherd said.

Fertilizer runoff from nearby farms can sometimes trigger the blooms, which have been longstanding problems not only in parts of Lake Erie, but in Grand Lake St. Mary’s and other Ohio inland lakes.

“We’re just trying to spot it,” Shepherd said.

Some 30 NASA engineers and staff have been involved in the project, Shepherd said. Florida commercial UAS manufacturer Altavian Inc. is also involved. In May, Sinclair and Altavian announced that the school would use the company’s fixed-wing Nova F7200 and its Galaxy R8700 octocopter.

“Think of it as a cross-functional team,” Norris said.

NASA developed a custom 260-band hydro-spectral sensor device to go aboard the Sinclair UAS. The sensor can take pictures of 260 pieces of the electro-magnetic spectrum at once, Shepherd said.

“You can process it and see things you can’t see with traditional photography and videography,” Shepherd said. “It gives you signatures of what the toxic algae would look like.”

Joseph Ortiz, professor of geology at Kent State University, is working with NASA Glenn, advising the team developing the sensor. He thinks NASA Glenn did well in choosing Sinclair to fly the drone.

Drones with the right sensors can allow precise distinctions to identify the kinds of algae present in the water, Ortiz said. Flight crews can send them up when and where they’re needed, weather permitting, well below cloud cover.

“The advantage of drone is that it’s less expensive to operate than an aircraft, for one thing,” he said. And safer, he added.

In a project like this, the right sensor array needs the right vehicle to carry it, Ortiz said.

“You have to have the right sensor and the platform to operate it off of,” he said.

Since 2009, Sinclair has invested millions in developing a UAS curriculum, hiring Shepherd from Riverside Research in August 2013 and building the $5 million National UAS Training and Certification Center, which includes an indoor flying pavilion, opened late last year.

The college has also offered courses and training certificates in UAS vehicle and sensor technologies.

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