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Northumbrian Water begins water quality drone test flights

A water company has successfully carried out the maiden test flight of a drone which is set to help improve the quality of the North East’s rivers and coastal waters.

Northumbrian Water begins water quality drone test flights

In a world-first for the utilities industry, Northumbrian Water is exploring the use of drone technology to carry out at scale, real-time water quality assessments, in partnership with cloud data experts, Makutu, and Skyports Drone Services.

The test flights come after months of ground-breaking research into how the uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), or pilotless drones, will use sensors, AI and data analytics to carry out a huge water quality monitoring programme of key coastal and inland locations.

Affectionately named Project Kingfisher by the partner organisations, for the way the drones will hover and dip in and out of water, the project has explored how and what data the drones will collect, to help Northumbrian Water respond quickly to any potential issues. Currently, the company can only survey water quality by sending its people to manually take water samples from sites, which can prove difficult when they’re a long distance away, in very rural areas, or during bad weather.

By using drones and clever technology, Northumbrian Water expects to see improved access to hard-to-reach areas, a reduced carbon footprint, more data over a larger area with faster results. The skies above Berwick-upon-Tweed, Bishop Auckland and Blyth will be the first to play host to Skyports Drone Services’ Speedbird Aero aircraft, which have a wingspan of 1.6m, as part of the phase one of a series of flight tests.

The Kingfisher tests will involve launching the drone from key locations in these areas and it will automatically visit several pre-programmed water sampling sites. When it is at the sampling site, the drone will hover while a number of key water quality tests are performed, before moving onto its next sample site. Meanwhile, the data it has collected will be fed back into Northumbrian Water for analysis in near real-time.

The drones operate ‘Beyond Visual Line of Sight’ but are supported by observers on the ground. Once phase one is successfully completed, the second phase of the trial will begin which will see the demonstration of the service to scale - operating robotically beyond visual line of sight over a period of three months, without ground observers.

Richard Warneford, Wastewater Director at Northumbrian Water, said: “We’re just as passionate as our customers about protecting the environment and improving river and coastal water quality so to have these test flights underway is really exciting.

“There’s a lot of hard work gone into understanding how UAV technology can be used to collect data efficiently, and these successful test flights have proven the validity of it as part of our huge water quality monitoring programme.

“We’re proud to be making history with this project and we can’t wait to begin rolling it out officially across the North East – it’s just another step towards having the cleanest rivers and beaches in the country.”

James Sumsion, Chief Executive Officer of Makutu, said: “The collaboration with Makutu, Northumbrian Water and Skyports Drone Services in this pioneering project marks a significant milestone in environmental stewardship and technological innovation.

“The successful test flights represent not just incredible technical innovation but are testament to the power of partnership and forward-thinking in addressing ecological challenges. By harnessing the capabilities of UAV technology, we're streamlining data collection and analysis paving the way for more informed and rapid decision-making in water course management.

“This project is an excellent example of how cutting-edge technology can be leveraged for the greater good. We're excited to see how this pilot study evolves and contributes to setting new standards in environmental monitoring and sustainability across the country."

Alex Brown, Director of Skyports Drone Services, said: “This project exemplifies our commitment to improving sustainability, safety and access with our electric drone services.

“Water quality is a hugely important issue in the UK. The unique solution we’ve developed with Makutu provides water companies with critical real-time data, enabling better monitoring, maintenance, and faster response to issues. With Northumbrian Water alone covering an area of 9,400km2, the potential positive impact to the environment, to field personnel, and to the communities that access these river and coastal locations is enormous.”

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