Drones are set to play an increasing role in the monitoring of water quality in Ireland as a new study demonstrated that the devices are capable of taking samples from remote lakes which are difficult to access by humans.
The study, which was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency, showed that drones could provide an alternative to traditional methods of gathering water samples.
At present, 812 Irish lakes are classified as water bodies under the EU Water Framework Directive but almost 600 lakes in remote or inaccessible areas are unmonitored.
Researchers from the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology carried out the first-ever tests in Europe on collecting a two-litre sample using drones.
They found that drones have the potential to carry out some sampling “in a more efficient, safer and cost-effective manner.” The study also concluded that water samples collected by drones were not statistically different to those gathered by boat and had no impact on accuracy or precision.
The researchers pointed out that current large-scale monitoring programmes are costly as they are resource-intensive, time-consuming and require considerable numbers of field personnel as two staff are traditionally required to operate boats while also posing many health and safety issues including biosecurity risks.
In 2010, 15 lakes were removed from the EPA’s water monitoring programme because of issues surrounding accessibility.
While the capital investment cost for sampling by boat was up to 1.5 times cheaper than by drone which cost €11,370 for the one used in the study, the researchers found samples by drone were up to 3.4 times faster.
The study also noted that the cost of drones is likely to decrease over time.
Dr Heather Lally, the project coordinator, said the study had made several significant contributions to the advancement and application of drone water sampling methods.
Tests showed water sampling 100 metres offshore from lakes in the west of Ireland could be carried out within four minutes.
They revealed that drones could operate in less than optimal weather conditions including wind speeds of greater than 30 km/h and moderate rainfall.
The study found water samples collected by drone satisfied the requirements of the EU Water Framework Directive and as a result drone sampling could be applied to large-scale water sampling programmes in future.
The researchers said drones also offered “a unique opportunity” to sample unmonitored lakes in Ireland as well as remote and inaccessible lakes worldwide.
They recommended that further tests be carried out to assess the suitability of drones for collecting samples from other aquatic environments including estuaries at high and low tide and marinas as well as rivers and streams at various flows.