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Detecting blue-green algae is just the start - 5G will enable better monitoring of our environment

By Andy Baryer, Special Technology Contributor

More than ever, sustainability initiatives are being deployed across the globe through coordinated efforts between countries, industry, NGOs, and other agencies. In September 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. This marked a universal call to action to “protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production...taking urgent action on climate change so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.”

Global warming presents considerable challenges to fragile ecosystems like oceans and lakes. Prolonged increases in water temperature significantly damage aquatic ecosystems. Globally, algae blooms are increasing, and climate change is playing a significant role. To adopt more sustainable practices, researchers are now exploring 5G IoT technologies to monitor algae blooms and track them in real-time.

Global Warming - Climate Impact on Algae Blooms

Harmful algae bloom during the summer season when water temperatures are warmer than usual. In the Baltic Sea, toxic blue-green algae thrive when the water is warm and slow-moving. Warmer temperatures prevent water from mixing, allowing algae to grow thicker. Small organisms move through warm water quickly, allowing algae to float to the surface faster. Sunlight absorbed by algae blooms increases the water temperature which promotes more toxic blue-green algae growth.

This negative cycle demonstrates how slight increases in water temperature in the Baltic Sea can enhance the conditions for sporadic toxic blooms. The blue-green algae observed today was once a rare phenomenon. Global warming and temperature increases in Finnish coastal waters - combined with increased pollution in the Baltic sea - have provided ideal conditions for blue-green algae blooms.

Monitoring Algae Masses in the Baltic Sea

The Finnish Environment Institute monitors blue-green algae in the Baltic Sea using a variety of methods. Traditional monitoring relied primarily on visual observations at the shoreline.

New real-time technologies are being deployed ranging from satellite imagery to automated chlorophyll measurements from ferries, cruise ships, and airplanes. These new technologies stem from the need for real-time detection of blue-green algae.

The movement of algae masses formed in open seas to coastal areas largely depends on prevailing winds and weather conditions. Strong winds mix blue-green algae into the surface water making them harder to detect by satellite imagery. This leaves a notable gap in real-time location monitoring of algae masses and provides opportunities to experiment with new 5G IoT technologies.

5G Drone Networks

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones presents new opportunities for environmental monitoring such as blue-green algae. Drones equipped with cameras and sensors collect data and extract meaningful information. New drone solutions allow a fleet of drones to communicate over wireless networks with a control center.

Nokia’s Drone Networks provide an end-to-end UAV environment that runs on Nokia’s private LTE network. Drones can operate in real-time or on scheduled flights for monitoring and data collection. This information is securely processed and transmitted on multi-tier platforms for aerial insight. Nokia’s Drone Networks are used for various industrial, agricultural, and smart city initiatives. With 5G, researchers are now exploring its potential for environmental monitoring.

The AlyVesi-project

A recent partnership between Nokia, Nordkapp, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, Telia and Vaisala leveraged 5G connectivity to develop new tools for SYKE researchers to monitor blue-green algae.

A trial was connected in Kirkkonummi on the west coast of Helsinki to evaluate the suitability of new 5G-enabled IoT technology in blue-green algae detection and real-time monitoring. Dubbed the AlyVesi or ‘SmartWater’ Project, the aim was to reduce energy consumption and the cost of data transmission and storage without compromising quality.

Researchers operated 5G-enabled drones equipped with cameras and sensors over a wide area in the Baltic Sea. Since drones can move quickly and easily over large distances, they chose an area outside the line of sight for visual observation of algae masses. High-resolution videos and sensor data were transmitted over a 5G network for real-time analysis by Vaisala’s computer vision capabilities.

5G, Drones, & Computer Vision

Real-time data delivered by 5G drones for computer vision helps environmental agencies better understand the impact of global warming on harmful algae blooms. Under good conditions, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE found that computer vision detected blue-green algae with over 90 percent accuracy. “Drones in combination with Vaisala’s computer vision capabilities provide unprecedented, real-time insights into environmental conditions,” says Erik Sucksdorff, Head of Strategy at Vaisala’s Weather and Environment Business Area.

The AlyVesi ‘Smart Water’ project showcases the potential of environmental video monitoring technologies. “5G technology has proved to be excellent in providing detailed and accurate real-time data for computer vision, something that can be used in a variety of scenarios,” says Pia Tanskanen, Head of Environment at Nokia. “This trial shows how 5G can make a real positive impact on what we can do for our environment.”

Nokia’s Drone Networks offer additional solutions to monitor forest fires, locate protected wildlife, monitor pollution in waterways and oceans, and rescue people in disaster areas. 5G drones can be implemented quickly in disaster areas and provide real-time data to rescue control centers to speed up decision making to save lives.

5G & Environmental Sustainability

With 5G, governments, industry, and environmental agencies have connectivity, agility, and real-time capabilities to overcome many environmental challenges. As a ‘natively greener’ next-generation mobile connectivity solution, 5G networks provide new possibilities to deploy communication technology, protect the environment, and promote long-term sustainability.

In September 2019, at the United Nations climate summit, Nokia joined 87 companies and committed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. “The climate crisis is real, but so are the tools to fight it, and we can win this fight if we act together,” said Rajeev Suri, President and CEO of Nokia.

The results of the AlyVesi ‘Smart Water’ project aligns with Nokia’s belief that “technology will continue to play a key role in accelerating and achieving all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals”. This trial has shown that organizations can adopt proactive sustainability initiatives using real-time environmental monitoring on 5G networks.

As the world looks towards more sustainable practices, we will look to 5G to continue to find new ways to enable global CO2 reduction, and limit the effects of global warming on our planet.

About the author

Andy Baryer,

Andy Baryer is a technology expert based in Vancouver, Canada with a specialty in consumer electronics, tech trends, and business technology. He's a former TV Host/Producer on GetConnected, Canada's longest-running technology show with regular appearances on GlobalBC, Corus Radio, CTV, CBC, AMI and BNN. Andy is also a CNET contributor and spends his free time tinkering with the latest technology gadgets and composing/producing music for podcasts.