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Mote scientists use drones to study red tide

Red tide impacts local businesses
Posted at 10:44 PM, Jul 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-21 06:06:38-04

SARASOTA, Fla. — A view from the sky may help form a better picture for those on the ground when it comes to toxic algae.

Scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium are studying how drones might help form a more complete, real-time view of red tide.

“This is essentially the same data the satellites give you just on a much finer scale, much more real-time and faster,” said Cody Cole, a staff biologist who is involved in marine operations and red tide research.

Cole explains drones equipped with special sensors first capture pictures, able to cover a large swath in a short time period.

“A satellite might make that one thing a whole pixel whereas I have 212 images within there,” he said showing pictures from a recent flight.

Mote recently launched the drones near Lido Key, flying them for the first time over a red tide bloom, Cole said. Researchers are looking at light wavelengths reflecting out of the water.

“Certain species of phytoplankton will reflect a certain wavelength of light in a certain pattern, so we’re looking at that spectrum of light,” Cole said.

Cole explains the raw images are then plugged into a program to extract the data, eventually stitched together to form a map.

“The whole idea behind using this data is to sort of develop our own algorithm based on what the satellites are using to sort of say hey, this is most likely going to be red tide we need to go and look here,” Cole said.

So far, the current bloom in the Tampa Bay region has left crews collecting more than 1,200 tons of red-tide-related debris in Pinellas County.

A county spokesperson said they are cautiously optimistic about the outlook of Tampa Bay, but noted red tide present in high concentrations along the south beaches. They expect onshore winds to continue to bring aerosols and dead fish to shore, though red tide is fluid.

“Our sampling is also showing that cell counts are going down we’re not out of the woods but things are turning positively from the bays perspective. However on the coast, we’re seeing pretty substantial blooms all the way from Longboat Key up to the Dunedin area,” said Eric Sutton, the executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Sutton said they’re expanding sampling there and have dedicated some aviation resources, like a helicopter.

“I’d like to be optimistic but all indicators are this may be sticking around with us for at least the first you know next several weeks,” Sutton said.

In the meantime, Cole keeps working on images from the drones.

“Eventually it’d be nice to get routine surveys over all of our hotspots of red tide in the bays and estuaries and if we start to see an elevated number that maybe we can’t detect via microscope samples we might be able to do something sooner about it,” Cole said.