Autonomous Robot for the Detection of Harmful Algal Blooms

Functionable Across Large and Small Lakes

At a Glance

Researchers at Colorado State University have developed a floating, autonomous robot equipped with a variety of sensors for navigation and sample collection to enable the rapid detection of harmful algal blooms. The innovative platform is solar-powered, with a pathfinding algorithm and global positioning system for navigating the border of a water body. It has a two-stage detection system and can collect and store water samples for lab testing and further confirmation of the toxins produced by harmful algal blooms (HABs).


Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) occur in both freshwater and saltwater throughout the United States. They are a significant threat to human, animal, and environmental health, through the release of toxins that contaminate bodies of water and water supplies nationwide. As water temperatures rise owing to climate change and ‘nutrient pollution’ continues to escalate, the incidence of HABs is expected to increase, and they are associated human illnesses, sickness and death of pets, livestock, and wildlife, and economic damages related to loss of commercial fishing and recreational revenues, decreased property values, and increased drinking-water treatment costs.

In the summer of 2014, a massive bloom of cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae) in Lake Erie resulted in the closure of drinking water facilities that served 500,000 people in Toledo, OH. Nationwide, cyanotoxins have been implicated in human and animal illness in at least 43 states.

Though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and other governmental organizations have large-scale efforts in place to monitor and forecast HABs, reliable sensing platforms for detecting HABs and their harmful products are generally too expensive to be widely deployed and monitored.


The autonomous robot has a simple and self-contained design that is easy to deploy. Stage 1 of the two-stage detection system monitors algae through chlorophyll and phycocyanin concentrations in the water body with a C-Flor Submersible Probe. An onboard logic system uses this data to flag areas with high probability of contamination and stage 2 collects water samples (stored internally within the robot) and tests them for microcystin and cylindrospermopsin toxins via a micro PAD test. A LoRa GPS hat receives and transmits the navigation feedback, and results from stage 1 and stage 2 testing.


  • Ability to move and sample across a body of water
  • Can discriminate between harmful agal blooms and algal blooms
  • Samples and analyzes in real time
  • Deployable by a 1- to 2-person crew
  • Power source is sustainable
  • Device is modular and adaptable over time
  • Moves in programable of autonomous pattern


  • Detection of Harmful Algal blooms at scales from small lakes/reservoirs to the Great Lakes
Last Updated: December 2023

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​Bradley Reisfeld
Steve Simske
Ed Hall

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