Skip to main content

Drone boats health check Europe's lakes and rivers

Fresh water running

Smart aquatic drones are being developed to safeguard major water sources in a multi-million effort to revolutionise assessing and improving Europe’s water quality.

Autonomous robotic boats will combine artificial intelligence, cloud computing and €7.5m European funding to monitor drinking water reservoirs.

The GPS enabled vessels will use sensors to measure chemicals in water, backed by handheld test kits to rate bacteriological quality – key measures of water quality.

Led by Brunel University London, INTCATCH is short for ‘Development and application of novel integrated tools for monitoring and managing catchments'. It will test Lake Garda in Italy, the River Ter in Barcelona, Greece’s Yliki Lake and London’s urban rivers.

The plan is to build a low-cost blueprint fit to analyse European water quality and safety to 2020, said Brunel University’s Dr Mark Scrimshaw.

“Many European water bodies still don’t meet targets set for 2015 under the EU Water Framework Directive” said Dr Scrimshaw. “In a world where regulatory bodies are increasingly being asked to reduce costs, it is a very timely project that can really change the approach society takes to looking after our water.”

Current water quality monitoring is complex, costly and mostly done by government bodies. Data often reflects a single sample from a single location and emerges weeks or months after it was collected. The main focus is usually to check whether the water meets quality regulations instead of identify, investigate and act on issues affecting water quality.

The aquatic drones use low-cost technology to take the laboratory to the field, to engage citizen scientists to do the assessments. Travelling semi-autonomously, or steered from the bankside using handheld tablets, they collect data in real time to track a source of contamination or follow pollution along a river. Data can be shared through The Cloud via mobile phone, to show communities water quality in their area.

Involving citizen scientists is key, said Dr Scrimshaw. “Local people are often well aware of issues with their rivers and lakes and if they take ownership of them, it can open new funding opportunities. For example, the Heathrow Community fund awarded a project partner, Thames21 £18,000 by to set up Friends of the Rivers Pinn & Frays Groups.”

Funded by Horizon 2020, scientists from 20 European partners including universities, regulators and manufacturer in six countries started the 40 month project last week to fine-tune the technology and devise a business franchise model to let community groups and NGOs lease the £4,000 boats.

“In future we could develop probes that can detect different contaminants such as zinc used in car tyres and copper, used in breaks. Or carry out genome analysis of bacteria in water, with DNA Testing kits,” said Dr Scrimshaw. Evidence will be transferred to the cloud and processed to gage biological changes, assess the human impact and answer questions such as the impact of storm waters, whether treatment is worthwhile, the impact of pesticides, or tourist activities and ultimately impact policy…

“This will revolutionise European water quality management for 2020-2040.”