Underwater robots help Great Lakes scientists collect data during pandemic

robotic glider
The Real-Time Aquatic Ecosystem Observation Network is using a robotic glider to detect harmful algal blooms and areas of low oxygen in Lake Erie.
By Sarah Scheili University of Windsor. While COVID restrictions have made scientific fieldwork in the Great Lakes difficult, researchers at the University of Windsor have continued to gather vital data using an underwater robot. Researchers at the Real-Time Aquatic Ecosystem Observation Network (RAEON) have worked with partner institutions in the United States to deploy an AUV— an autonomous underwater vehicle. The AUV, which they’ve named the Cormorant, is being used to study harmful algal blooms and low oxygen levels in Lake Erie. “The Cormorant has been a vital alternative to scientific cruises, surveys, and other fieldwork,” said Katelynn Johnson, director of RAEON. “It can be deployed for weeks and months at a time, providing continuous data that can’t be collected with normal sampling methods by scientists aboard ships.” The Cormorant is a Slocum glider, a bright yellow, torpedo-shaped vehicle. Scientists have used gliders to collect data from deep ocean waters, but RAEON Is using the Cormorant in shallow areas of Lake Erie. Its mission has already identified areas of low oxygen called hypoxia which can negatively affect fish and compromise treatment processes for drinking water. “2020 was to be a big rollout year for RAEON to support multiple research programs across the Great Lakes, but then the pandemic hit,” said RAEON science director Aaron Fisk, a UWindsor professor who holds a Canada Research Chair in trophic ecology, the study of feeding relationships among organisms in an ecosystem. “We are fortunate to be able to carry out a glider mission to provide needed data for research and models in Lake Erie.” Dr. Fisk said RAEON will expand the Cormorant’s use, using it and other gliders for research across the Great Lakes. RAEON, headquartered at the University of Windsor, is funded by a $15.9 million grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation. Its cutting-edge research positions Canada as a global leader in the conservation of freshwater ecosystems. —Sarah Sacheli

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