Blimp tested in effort to reduce Erie algae

TOLEDO (AP) — Researchers are hoping that a surveillance balloon about the size of a two-story house will help decrease western Lake Erie dead zones where decaying algae plants suck up oxygen needed by fish and other wildlife.

The $125,000 unmanned SkySentry Aerostat blimp, initially designed for military surveillance and communications, is testing its cameras and other equipment about 1,000 feet above a barge off Maumee Bay.

Several times a week, the device snaps spectral images of the light emitted by algae and matches them to algae found from boats and aircraft in the warm and shallow waters. Researchers seek to track algae blooms before they fully develop and predict where they will drift.

Another goal is to find a less-expensive way to capture images than satellites, which are not as clear and are recorded only every eight days.

Officials from Colorado-based SkySentry and the Army’s Space & Missile Defense Battle Lab recently demonstrated the blimp for government officials, scientists and environmentalists during a conference at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center.

“This is mostly a demonstration ... but we also hope to become another teammate permanently gathering data out on Lake Erie,” said Jeffrey Faunce, deputy for experiments at the Army lab.

For the military, the blimp was used for communications and surveillance at levels above 60,000 feet, Faunce said.

“But this also has a dual-use technology that we think is very exciting — being able to work on environmental studies to hopefully help mitigate the algal problem in western Lake Erie,” he said.

Once algae plants die, they decay at the lake’s bottom, creating oxygen-deprived areas that either kill fish or force them to other areas of the lake. Researchers say some algae can become toxic, endangering wildlife, pets and possibly human drinking water.

“There’s a lot of algae out there this year, too — a real big bloom,” said George Leshkevich of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Michigan.

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