Beachcombing: Hunting for red tide with algae-seeking robots (photos)

01 - Red Tide Robot

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Carl Oberg, an engineering technician for the USC Robotics Research Lab, prepares the submersible robot Rusalka for an underwater mission to monitor levels of acid and other climactic factors in the Pacific Ocean.

02 - Red Tide Robot

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Capt. Gordon Boivin, marine operations manager for USC's operations on Catalina, pilots the Miss Christi toward Catalina Island on Monday, July 29.

03 - Red Tide Robot

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Arvind Pereira, a doctoral candidate in engineering at USC, takes photos of the robot he programmed. Rusalka is Russian for mermaid.

04 - Red Tide Robot

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Capt. Gordon Boivin emerges from the hull of the Miss Christi after working in the ships engine room.

05 - Red Tide Robot

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Mariah Rowe, the daughter of a researcher at USC's Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island, stands on the deck of the Miss Christi as it leaves the Port of Los Angeles and San Pedro in the distance.

06 - Red Tide Robot

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Supreeth Subbaraya, a master's candidate in engineering at USC, carries the submersible robot down the dock at the USC Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island.

07 - Red Tide Robot

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Supreeth Subbaraya (left) and Arvind Pereira are researchers at USC. They establish an initial link with the underwater robot.

08 - Red Tide Robot

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The submersible robot Rusalka is one of two the lab operates and it's filled with sensitive electronics for communication, navigation and scientific testing.

09 - Red Tide Robot

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Supreeth Subbaraya (left) and Arvind Pereira conduct electronic tests over a satellite connection with a submersible robot from a dock on Catalina Island.

10 - Red Tide Robot

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USC researchers load a submersible robot into a skiff in preparation for a two-week mission to monitor ocean water about 100 yards below the surface.

11 - Red Tide Robot

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Carl Oberg, an engineering technician for the USC Robotics Research Lab, pilots a skiff around a submersible robot during preliminary testing on a two-week research mission.

12 - Red Tide Robot

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The submersible robot conducts a test dive in the waters off Catalina Island. The robot uses variations of its neutral buoyancy to dive and rise.

13 - Red Tide Robot

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Oberg unties a skiff that will take a submersible robot out off the coast of Catalina Island for launch.

14 - Red Tide Robot

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Oberg pilots a skiff back toward Catalina Island and the USC Wrigley Institute research station on the island off the California coast.


This story is part of our summer series "Beachcombing," in which KPCC reporters will explore  the ecology, economy and culture of Southern California's beaches and coast. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on KPCC's Facebook page. 

Sitting on a dock on Catalina Island is a 6-foot long torpedo.

Well, it's not actually a torpedo. It's a sophisticated seafaring robot that looks like a torpedo. Owned by the University of Southern California, it's designed to swim the ocean looking for signs of red tide. 

Red tide is naturally occurring phenomenon in which algae overpopulate a stretch of water, turning it red. Sometimes, these algal blooms produce harmful toxins that sicken sea creatures.

In recent years, red tide has poisoned large numbers of West Coast shellfish, costing the industry tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Sea lions, birds and, in rare cases, even humans have died from eating red tide-tainted seafood.

RELATED: Loss of isopods raises questions about beach health (photos)

USC biology professor David Caron says for years now it's been clear that harmful algae blooms are increasing worldwide.

He says some scientists think global warming is to blame. Others say runoff from farms and cities are draining into the ocean and feeding these micro-organisms, causing them to grow in large numbers.

"It's very complicated," Caron says, adding that the rise in red tide is likely due to a combination of factors.

Readying the robot

USC's red tide-hunting robot is named Rusalka. Technician Carl Oberg says the name comes from a Slavic legend.

"Rusalka is a water spirit that drags men down to their deaths," Oberg laughs.

Oberg tightens the seals on the robot, plugging in cables and getting the $120,000 robot ready for a two-week solo mission in the Pacific.

"When you are deploying something like this which is that expensive you have to make sure every single thing checks out correctly," says USC scientist Arvind Pereira.

Pereira programs the robot's path through the water. He uses complicated models to map the ocean and send Rusalka to places where red tide is likely to form.

Once there, the robot uses a suite of onboard censors to gather clues about the oceanic conditions that lead to red tide.

Underwater robots like Rusalka can sometimes detect harmful blooms as they are forming, says Professor Caron, allowing scientists  to warn people of potentially toxic conditions before they reach shore.

Caron says he hopes one day the data gathered by these robots will lead to ways of curbing the frequency and toxicity of red tide.

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