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Drones monitor Sydney’s water cleanliness

Sydney Water is introducing unmanned aerial vehicle technology to improve its water sampling program. 

To help manage water quality after recent downpours, Sydney Water is conducting a testing blitz with a new fleet of drones that will help it assess water quality in hard-to-reach places.

Sydney saw its wettest year in 20 years in 2020, with rainfall in most areas between 20 and 50 percent above the long-term average.

The pilot program is targeting nine popular swimming and fishing spots across Sydney harbour and coastline after heavy rains caused rapid stormwater runoff, increasing the risk of contamination in the city’s waterways. 

Sydney Water contracted local firm Sphere Drones to create a fully functioning water sampling pump that would be mounted onto a drone. The technology will be tasked with collecting 200 samples over the summer.

Sphere said that it designed and built a proprietary drone-mounted water pump using 3D-printing technology. With a 1.6 kg payload, the drone has 30 minutes of flight time and can withstand 28.8 km/hr wind resistance.

A new efficiency 

Sampling has traditionally been done by boat, but hard-to-reach areas and rough segments of coastline will now be accessed by a specially-made drone with a hose attachment. The drone solution was able to dramatically reduce both the time taken, the fuel needed and the personnel required to undertake the same sampling procedure.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Auckland has also adopted drone technology for water quality monitoring, with estimates suggesting it could save the utility 30 per cent in operating costs.

Julia Bartlett, Sydney Water's head of laboratory services, said that the drones were chosen for a range of natural factors, such as currents, tides, and runoff.

"Really what we're trying to understand is what sort of impact is occurring at these sites, particularly after rainfall," she said.

New South Wales water minister Melinda Pavey said that the drone program was one of the largest scientific investments in the state’s waterways in 20 years.

"These drones can get into really hard places that we can't get our boats into, sample that water, and make sure the runoff is doing what it's supposed to do, during these high-intensity events," she said.

"Sydney Harbour has never been cleaner, but we can do more — we'll use whatever technology we can use to make sure we take those learnings and improve our management where we can.”