Singapore’s national water agency, PUB, has figured out that it can save about 5,000 manhours every year by deploying drones to conduct monitoring activities at six water reservoirs spread across the nation.

So, starting next week, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drones will take over the skies to observe water quality and monitor water activities at six of Singapore’s 17 reservoirs.

At present, PUB ground crews conduct daily patrols at the six reservoirs, during which they keep an eye out for excessive growth of aquatic plants and algal blooms – things that could affect the water quality. At the same time, these crews also collect data on water activities, such as fishing, to make sure that they are being conducted safely and legally. Annually, the agency estimates, 7,200 manhours are spent on these patrols.

But if the job is delegated to long-range drones equipped with rem​ote sensing systems and a camera for near real-time video analytics, PUB staff will be freed up for other works. Yeo Keng Soon, Director of PUB’s Catchment and Waterways Department, explains:

With drones, we can channel manpower to more critical works such as the inspection and maintenance of reservoir gates, as well as pump and valve operations. The drones also act as an early warning system that enhances our response time to the myriad of issues that our officers grapple with on a daily basis.

How drones help water utilities and monitoring agencies

The water agency has procured customized drones ​capable of autonomous takeoff and landing from a pod. These drones will follow pre-programmed flight paths within the reservoir compound, even as an operator monitors them remotely. The flying robots will have three major tasks:

  • Monitoring water quality: The drone’s remote sensing system will analyze the water for turbidity and algae concentration. If necessary, on-site officers will collect samples for further laboratory testing.
  • Monitoring aquatic plant growth: Using the live video feed from the drones, a machine learning algorithm will identify plant overgrowth in the reservoirs.
  • Monitoring water activities: Since the drone’s video feed will also capture activities like kayaking and fishing, the analytics platform will come into play to flag potential concerns, such as fishing in non-designated areas or overcrowding of vessels in a particular area.

Any alert on illegal water activities will then be sent directly to PUB officers’ mobile phones for intervention. These officers will then be able to prioritize urgent cases that pose potential danger to the public and respond in a timely manner. As Keng Soon sums up:

With 17 reservoirs – which are an important water supply source for Singapore – under our care, it can be a challenge manpower-wise to effectively monitor what goes on at each reservoir and ensure the reservoirs are in optimal condition. Our use of drones is in line with PUB’s commitment to leverage technology as part of the SMART PUB roadmap to improve our operations and meet future needs.

water monitoring drone
Singapore’s drone water monitoring plan in a snapshot

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