Business & Tech

Drones are the newest tools to monitor the health of Boston Harbor

Francesco Peri, left, and Daniel Genest, right, aboard the M/V Columbia Point during during a HUBweek event Wednesday on technology and harbor health. Here they were deploying side scan sonar to demostrate their research.
Jonathan Wiggs\Globe Staff
Francesco Peri, left, and Daniel Genest, right, aboard the M/V Columbia Point during during a HUBweek event Wednesday on technology and harbor health. Here they were deploying side scan sonar to demostrate their research.

At a dock jutting into the harbor from the University of Massachusetts Boston campus, a researcher showed off the simple Secchi disk, a black-and-white, circular device that helps scientists determine the clarity of water by tracking the depth at which it disappears from view.

Behind the curious crowd, a decidedly more complex tool for studying the Boston Harbor buzzed to life, as a red, plastic drone lifted off with a camera in tow.

With that, a group of about 70 onlookers boarded the school’s M/V Columbia Point research ship for a Wednesday afternoon cruise around the harbor as UMass Boston showed off the range of the technologies the team uses to monitor pollution, understand what’s living in the water, and map the harbor floor.

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The event — part of HUBweek, an innovation-themed festival founded by Harvard, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, and The Boston Globe — was an opportunity to show residents and visitors the data behind the story of how the Boston Harbor has changed from a polluted embarrassment to one of the region’s most important assets.

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There was a torpedo-shaped sonar device that provided a view of the bottom clear enough to reveal lobster traps strung together as the 64-foot boat passed above. A “mini-shuttle,” similar in shape to a stingray, trailed behind the transom, sending in data to show man-made structures were affecting the harbor waters. And there was a robot that measured the amount of phytoplankton, a key indicator of the waterway’s health.

As the scientific equipment kicked out information in the deckhouse below, Fred Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, told those on board that keeping the water clean is a complicated task.

He referenced the sparkling high rises across the harbor in the Seaport district, and then pointed to the egg-shaped towers of the massive water treatment plant on Deer Island. Without one, he said, you wouldn’t have the other.

“It’s really been an environmental success story,” Laskey said. “All the buildings were built to look away from the harbor because you never knew what was floating by or what would smell.”

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Looking over the blue-green water, Thabsile Ntshalintshali — who came here from Swaziland to study at Boston University — said she was impressed by the science that goes into protecting the harbor. Coming from a landlocked country, Ntshalintshali said, the HUBweek cruise was an event she could not pass up.

“There’s so many things that we don’t see,” she said. “We don’t have water to do most of these things.”

Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.