Among the threats facing our lakes and waterways, the danger posed by Aquatic Invasive Species (or, AIS) ranks among the highest. In recent years, new species have entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and they’re arriving in ever increasing numbers.

In an effort to combat this rising tide of aquatic invaders, the Yellow Medicine Soil Water and Conservation District (SWCD) is teaming up with local 4-H kids to develop an innovative, if also unusual, solution: robots.

The idea is to use remotely operated vehicles (ROV) to identify different AIS species living in surrounding bodies of water. This will help researchers and fishermen alike gain a better understanding of the distribution of AIS in our region.

The ROVs are constructed out of PVC pipes. The 4-H robotics team constructed the entire robot by themselves, including measuring, cutting, striping wires, drilling holes, and soldering the circuit board. Models were then tested in the Clarkfield Community Pool before being launched on local lakes.

The idea first gained traction with the Big Stone County 4-H Club, and has since spread around the state. According to SWCD Water Resource Technician Brooke Buysse, the Aqua Robotics program will “increase STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education while benefiting the environment through monitoring and prevention of aquatic invasive species (AIS).”

In 2010, the Yellow Medicine 4-H did pilot work and showcased at the Minnesota State Fair that fall. According to Brian McNeill (who supervises the program with 4-H), the robots were designed by MIT and were packaged by the Seaperch Organization. The technology was developed in partnership with the Office of the Navy and the Society of Naval and Marine Engineers. There are a variety of different uses for these ROVs, though in Minnesota, they have been used for nature exploration, ecological research, and tracking the spread of certain AIS.

AIS aren’t new to the area, and they continue to present a serious threat to the water health of Minnesota. Buysse says that zebra, mussels, starry stonewort, big head and silver carp, and the spiny water flea are the biggest concerns. She explains that AIS will often consume “desirable food such as zooplankton and algae from the water column,” leaving “less for native fishes.”

AIS also tend to reproduce faster than the native species (such as the silver carp) and will often forage for small plants and animals. Buysse said that this was concerning, saying that “this competition would make it difficult for native fish to find enough food to survive.”

In addition to locating AIS in our waterways, the Aqua Robotics program will also help educate the public about the importance of preventing the spread of AIS. Buysse says that the 4-H team will eventually demonstrate the ROV in use on the lakes, adding that they might also make changes to the robot to enable plant/animal collection.

The program currently sponsors “a small group of enthusiastic kids this year,” Buysse said, and affords unique educational opportunities for local youth. In addition to learning about the ROV building process, students also learned about Minnesota’s aquatic ecosystems and the threat posed by AIS. Buysse added that the kids will be able to make improvements to their robot design, and will eventually share their knowledge with lake visitors.

Buysse lauds the program for raising awareness about AIS, adding that it will also help prevent the spread of AIS currently in Yellow Medicine to other counties. “The main transporters of AIS are humans and if we can take care of our boats and equipment we can keep the AIS out of our lakes,” Buysse said. “It only takes a few minutes after loading your boat to pull the plug, drain the live well, and walk around to see if you have any plants on your boat/trailer.”

The Aqua Robotics program is also supported by the University of Minnesota Extension. The Clarkfield Area Charter School and the City of Clarkfield also opened their facilities to the 4-H youth. For more information about the program, or if you would like to get involved, please contact the Yellow Medicine 4-H offices at 320-669-4471, or at aawebb@umn.edu.