GMIT researchers win funding to explore use of drones for water quality testing

GMIT’s Marine and Freshwater Research Centre (MRFC ) has won funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the potential of drones to sample water and physico-chemical data from open lakes.

The research, the first of its kind in Ireland, will be led by Dr Heather Lally, Dr Ian O’Connor, and Dr Conor Graham who secured €132,000 for the two-year project, which will assess the potential of drones for open lake water sampling; evaluate whether water samples collected using drones satisfy good ecological status as set out in the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD ); determine whether drones can be used to increase the number of lakes monitored; and examine whether drones can offer a quicker, more cost effective, less labour intensive, and safer sampling protocol for the EPA as part of its WFD Lake Monitoring programme.

The project team is made up of multi-national and multi-disciplinary experts including water chemistry scientists, lake biologists, incorporated engineers, licensed unmanned aerial vehicle pilots, and researchers applying drones in environmental monitoring.

The GMIT team are collaborating with industry partners Model Heli Services (MHS ), a family-run, small-medium sized enterprise based in Ennis, Co Clare (Liam and Mark Broderick ), and Professor Olaf Jensen of Rutgers University in New York State, USA, who uses drones to monitor river and lake habitats in North America and Mongolia.

Their findings will inform and enable the development of new operation approaches to sample and monitor water quality. The results will also inform teaching and learning, specifically of undergraduate research projects in field and laboratory techniques.

Principal investigator Dr Heather Lally said: “Application of drone technology in environmental monitoring has really taken off over the last few years. Here at GMIT’s Marine and Freshwater Research Centre, we are coupling this novel technology with a practical approach to solving water quality sampling issues and achieving greater compliance with the EU’s WFD. We hope that the project will allow a great number of inaccessible lakes to be monitored, while offering quicker sampling times and overall greater value for money to the Irish taxpayer.”

Dr Conor Graham, MFRC, GMIT, added: “Success of this innovative and collaborative project has the potential to develop Ireland as world leaders in lake water quality monitoring through enhanced efficiency combined with increased safety while considerably reducing the risk of spreading invasive species.”

Model Heli Services (MHS ) will provide the technical know-how to design and build the specialist water sampling payload. MHS will also install separate communication technologies on the drone, allowing easy deployment of the sampling payload, and transmission of real-time underwater camera images and physico-chemical data to flight operators that ensure correct and accurate sampling.

“Combining our vast knowledge of drones with GMIT’s research capability will allow the use of drones to gather water samples in a safe manner,” said Mark Broderick of MHS. “Lots of lakes are inaccessible or too dangerous to sample using boats. We will try to overcome these issues of safely using drones. We look forward to designing and building the drone and payload system. Ireland is leading the way with drones and how they can be used in all sectors — this is another chance to show what can be done.”

Overall the research has the potential to reduce water sampling costs, time, personnel requirements, and resources while also improving safety, compared to the EPA’s current method of sampling via boats. The use of cheaper drone technologies to gather water quality data may allow scarce resources to be redirected into sampling a greater number of lakes. This will allow for a more cost effective and complete WFD Lake Monitoring programme and ultimately Ireland’s greater compliance with the EU WFD.

To keep up to date with project news and research team activities follow @DroPLEtS18 on Twitter or see dronesforlakesampling.com

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