How Corning’s hyperspectral sensor helps scientists tackle New York’s serious algae problem

How Corning’s hyperspectral sensor helps scientists tackle New York’s serious algae problem

Harmful algal blooms threaten lake ecosystems. Researchers are using Corning technology to identify them at the source.

Along the shore of Chautauqua Lake in New York, a group of scientists gazed up, eyes following a drone pacing the sky. But while they were looking up, they were searching for what lies below. Bright green water lapped at the beach – a harmful algal bloom (HAB) disrupting the lake’s ecosystem. The drone – a two-and-half-foot-tall, remote-operated device – carried the Corning® microHSI™ 410 SHARK hyperspectral imaging (HSI) sensor, gathering data about the mysterious bloom below.

HABs are a collection of blue-green algae, with many ways of presenting themselves. Often, they appear paint-like on the water surface. Other times, they’re a streaky scum. Their color can vary. By the time bystanders observe and report HABs to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, it’s usually too late.

“The toxins produced by harmful algal blooms can cause health issues ranging from skin irritation to neurological disorders and digestive issues,” said Dr. Courtney Wigdahl-Perry, associate professor of biology at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia. “In the case of pets and livestock, it’s been known to cause death.”

Wigdahl-Perry is a scientist researching HABs to provide lake managers with information on why, where, and when these blooms occur across the state. Not only are HABs a hazard to public health, she says, but they harm local tourism when they shut down beaches. And, as the algae decays, bacteria monopolize a lake’s oxygen, resulting in fish kills.

The State of New York has deemed HABs a “threat.” In 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a $65 million initiative to combat the blooms, which thrive during warmer temperatures, feeding on the nitrogen and phosphorous in agricultural runoff from synthetic fertilizers and manure. That same year, Corning Enterprises committed $50,000 toward the development of a comprehensive watershed plan covering the Finger Lakes, in the area surrounding Corning’s Headquarters in New York.

Wigdahl-Perry met Corning’s Patrick Jackson, director of Global Energy Management (GEM), on a State-led steering committee aimed at combatting HABs. Corning’s GEM program oversees its global water usage and implements projects to conserve usage, lower costs, and improve local waterways. Along with the Finger Lakes being a recruitment draw for Corning, Jackson said the HAB project is a company responsibility.

“People love to recreate on the Finger Lakes,” Jackson said. “We want pristine waters, not just to protect health and the environment, but to better serve the community Corning does business in. So, Corning got involved.”

In partnership with the State of New York, Corning and other businesses also paired with SUNY schools. Corning has provided four HSI sensors to help, and while COVID-19 has interrupted flights over the Finger Lakes, research is now going strong.

On the shore, the scientists – Wigdahl-Perry, collaborator Dr. Timothy de Smet of Binghamton University, and their undergraduate student researchers – eagerly await the Hyperspectral data the microHSI™ 410 SHARK collects. The sensor, crafted in Keene, New Hampshire, takes incoming light reflected off surfaces and divides it into many spectral bands, most of which are not visible to the human eye. Every material – soil, water, vegetation, a coffee cup – has a unique spectral signature based on how it reflects or emits electromagnetic radiation.

Whether handheld, flown in a drone, or orbiting the Earth, an HSI sensor takes pictures that, when paired with the right software, can discriminate differences based upon a material's spectral signature. The microHSI™ 410 SHARK is not only compact and lightweight, it delivers exceptional spectral imaging performance, detecting environmental abnormalities, such as pipeline leaks. This sensor is optimized for the commercial remote sensing market, more specifically precision agriculture, environmental terrain and vegetation assessment and management, and mineral exploration. Data from these sensors have infrastructure and defense uses, as well.

In this case, the HSI sensor can detect HABs in their various states of growth and can identify where they begin and how they move.

“Traditional approaches for monitoring HABs rely on limited sampling locations or bystander reports. There aren’t many times we can use a spatial, systematic approach to understand what happens over the lifespan of the bloom,” Wigdahl-Perry said. “The hyperspectral cameras in the drone allow us to look at more areas of the lake simultaneously and differentiate the harmful groups of algae versus the non-harmful.”

The information gathered by the scientists via the HSI sensor can help lake managers mitigate blooms and prevent them in the future. Treatments vary by lake, but the information can help lake managers assess the nutrients that fuel HABs in the water.

Working with Corning’s HSI sensors also gives students real-world experience analyzing environmental issues. And, they are always “jazzed” on days they can fly a drone, Wigdahl-Perry says.

“Looking at aerial imagery is very powerful,” Wigdahl-Perry said. “Giving our students the opportunity to work with real world applications, collecting the data and analyzing large data sets, is really powerful for preparing for them to get out and do anything.”

The next time you see a drone buzzing up above, look at what’s below. The people flying it might just be searching for answers that could change the community and environment.