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Algae makes monitoring business bloom

Discovery Air Fire Services using new technology to spot blue-green algae from the air, changing name to MAG Aerospace Canada

Every summer blue-green algae blooms are a common sight in lakes, but some of those are a big enough health hazard they can shut down beaches and threaten water supplies.

To combat this one company in Sudbury, Discovery Air Fire Services, is using a system of infrared cameras and sensors to identify and track blooms.

This technology is proving so useful the federal and provincial governments are backing it with large sums of funding, and has partnered with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) to help track and study it.

This move means Discovery Air Fire Services will be known as MAG Aerospace Canada.

“It made sense for us to use this technology because we are already in the air guiding bombers and monitoring the forest, and we have extensive knowledge of the region's lakes,” said Greg Ross, chair of environmental and health surveillance at Discovery Air and professor at NOSM and environmental researcher. “We know these blooms are going to be a bigger health concern with climate change and more phosphates (from fertilizers and waste systems) are dumped in the water.”

He explained blue-green algae is a hybrid of a plant and a bacteria, as it feeds off sunlight and heat for energy. It is naturally-occuring, but the blooms are becoming more frequent.

The problems happen when blooms grow so large they release high amounts of toxins into the water, causing everything from skin rashes in humans and animals, to mass fish kills, posing serious risks to the environment.
“There is some evidence that these toxins could cause serious neo-degenerative diseases,” he said. “Those could take 20 years or more to develop, but we know enough about these toxins we shouldn't be exposed to them and we shouldn't consume them.”

The sensors will help monitor blooms and warn the public where they are happening, avoid swimming and drinking the water.

Discovery Air is utilizing a series of sensors, which Ross explained are spread out between two aircraft. One has a electronic optics and infrared sensor mounted on a plane wing that swivels 360 degrees, while another plane has a hyperspectral sensor housed in what is known as a belly pod of another plane.

Ross explained the reason the sensors are spread out between two aircraft is the amount of data each collects is massive.

“It is a combination of all sorts of spectral characteristics,” he said. “The pigments in the chloraphylls they make are different than the chloraphylls in plants. We have to zero in on which pigments are made by just green algae and other plants, and which ones are blue-green algae.”

Mike Ciezadlo, program manager at MAG Aerospace, explained they use remote sensing. They are airborne sensors that can tune in to colour wavelengths that can scan an object at the microscopic level.

“Everything has a unique signature,” he said. “They operate just like a regular camera, looking down, and collecting data. The difference is in how they take the pictures. There's 288 images stacked on top of each other.

"We are looking for specific layers within that image combination to say this, and this, is unique.”

From there, they can create an algorithm that scans to determine if it is blue-green algae.

The technology also allows for faster analysis of images, even faster than taking water samples.

“Before, confirming if there was an algae bloom meant someone had to go there and take a sample,” Ross said.

The federal government has contributed $1 million through FedNor to the program, as well as the Ontario Government also contributing $1 million. Adding up private contributions that comes to $4 million, Ross said.

“There are unbelievable benefits with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine working with Discovery air Fire Services,” he said. “We are developing new technology, we're going to take positions on this that are going to be unique in the technologies that we are developing, and this is going to represent a fantastic commercial opportunity.”

He explained that with blue-green algae being such a big health and environmental problem around the country and even the world, they can use this partnership to take the technology to an international market.

This project is a natural fit, Ciezadlo said. They already fly into many of these areas as spotters and escorts for firefighting water bombers.

This new technology also represents a major change for Discovery Air Fire Services. The company has been acquired by MAG Aerospace, which Ross said would mean job creation and wealth production for the company. As of now, Discovery Air Fire Services is now known as MAG Canada.

According to Mark Hill, CEO of Discovery Air Fire Services, this change means they are expanding their market.

“Decision makers need good information,” he said. “We can do that effectively from the air. There is a steep learning curve with this, and with MAG being a global leader in manned, unmanned and fixed wing, they brought that expertise to us immediately.”

They will still be majority Canadian-owned company, he stressed.

“We just had a huge door opened, it's opportunities on a global scale,” he said. “As well as having that world-class ISR (industry research chair) added to the company as well.”

Ross holds the industry research chair, which is part of the partnership with NOSM.

Hill explained that move was to strengthen the relationship with NOSM, and said the success of it will be enhanced by joining MAG Aerospace. He added they have worked together in the past and it was a great relationship and this is a step up for the industry research chair.

“The IRC will have an advisory board and advising Gregg now as the chair of the IRC, so of course there will be various folks, but some of those who are going to be those who have successfully operated in a commercial space, airborne-sensing applications...whether that's manned or unmanned.”