Algae Eye in the Sky: Blue Water Satellite Hunts for Toxic Blooms From Space

Blue Water satellite

Evaluating water pollution is a tedious process. Scientists scoop up small samples in a jar and take them back to the lab. But sampling is time-consuming and doesn't provide the whole picture of what's going in a body of water. That's why a startup called Blue Water Satellite is leveraging the U.S. government's Landsat satellite along with a number of private satellites to hunt for the location and concentration of potentially toxic Cyanobacteria blooms (aka blue-green algae) in lakes, streams, rivers, ponds, and reservoirs around the world.

Blue Water Satellite has only been in operation since early 2009, but the company has already used its proprietary algorithms on hundreds of satellite images for customers, which include environmental engineering firms and governmental agencies. "We're mainly a bits company," explains Milt Baker, CEO of Blue Water Satellite. "We download satellite images, and process them with proprietary algorithms. We have a recurring revenue stream because people want to monitor water."

The startup's satellite images have a few big advantages over conventional water surveying methods: They cover entire bodies of water instead of individual spots, and since Landsat satellite images have been stored on government servers since 1984, Blue Water Satellite can go back in time to, say, track the bloom of a toxic algae and find out that it was caused by an industrial plant dumping phosphorous into the water.

Cyanobacteria tracking is big business. Algae blooms can cause everything from skin rashes to death in humans, and they're growing in number because of climate change and increased water waste. It's not surprising, then, that Blue Water Satellite is in talks with the EPA to help audit 68,000 lakes for a national lakes assessment.

The company is also working in other countries—including China, Australia, and Guatemala—on jobs that rake in between $10,000 and over one million dollars depending on the body of water. The business will continue to grow as government agencies impose more stringent water regulations.

Cyanobacteria data could also be useful to companies seeking out sources of algae for fuel. "We can be a key part of the biofuels business. We have some grant proposals in to the NOAA about how to help find algae, work with companies that can get it out of there, and convert it to biofuels," says Baker.

Blue Water Satellite isn't just sticking with Cyanobacteria tracking, either. The company already has the capability to track phosphorus concentration in land (something that could come in handy for farmers), and it is working on tracking oil fields, animal herds, and more. And as long as there is a need to comb the planet for resources and danger zones, Blue Water Satellite will have customers.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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