Scientists test feasibility of drones and satellites to monitor water quality

The tests took place at Loch Leven

Experts have been testing cutting-edge techniques designed to enhance the monitoring of water worldwide as part of the €5 million MONOCLE project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Around 20 scientists from the University of Stirling, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and colleagues from across Europe were gathering at Loch Leven, Kinross-shire, in late August, where they studied the feasibility of using drone and other in situ technology to monitor the quality of water.

The work dovetails with a Stirling-led project that is using satellites to monitor water quality from space. Scientists hope that information gathered from drones or loch-side devices will help address gaps in conventional monitoring and support data collected with satellites.

Professor Andrew Tyler, Deputy Dean and Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Stirling, leads the £2.9m GloboLakes project, which uses satellites of the European Space Agency to monitor water quality, including the detection of algal concentrations, harmful algal blooms, and mineral and organic matter.

While the project team believe the technology has the ability to help monitor the millions of lakes across the world, the latest study, MONOCLE, addresses specific gaps in data.

Professor Tyler said: “Only a small fraction of the world’s 100 million lakes are routinely monitored – largely due to their geographical spread and the logistical and political difficulties of monitoring water.

“The GloboLakes project has shown that, by using satellites, we can measure the constituents that contribute to water quality by their absorption and scattering of characteristics within the water column associated with lakes, reservoirs, rivers and estuaries.

MONOCLE involves 12 partners and is led by Stefan Simis, Earth Observation scientist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

He said: “It is essential to obtain regular and widespread measurements of water quality in lakes, estuaries and coastal waters, both to support satellite observations and in their own right – we use satellites to relate water colour to water quality, while measurements in the field are essential to monitor further chemical and biological properties.”

“Deploying sensors is unfortunately still a costly effort and one of the aims of MONOCLE is to bring down this cost. Our international colleagues visiting lochs in Scotland this week are developing methods to use consumer drones and sensors which you can build yourself, alongside highly accurate measurement instruments.”

After trialling the technology at Loch Leven, further tests will take place in Sweden, Hungary, Romania and Tanzania – assessing and comparing both low to high cost solutions and promoting the engagement of citizens in the monitoring of water.

Professor Tyler added: “This project at Loch Leven is the first in a series, in which we will look at how different instruments work, how they compare and what factors influence that comparison.