Anglian Water flies drones to find costly underground pipeline leaks

Anglian water drones

In response to the summer’s record heat waves amid an enduring period of drought, UK utility Anglian Water moved to ramp up its use of drones to spot pipeline leaks faster – an effort that has already spared the company and its customers countless gallons of expensive wasted seepage.

Anglian Water is one of the largest water utilities in the UK, and has used drones since 2017 to keep watch over the 24,000 miles of largely underground mains that serve communities across the southeastern part of England. But in response to evidence that global warming will make hotter temperatures and lower levels of rainfall a recurring problem, Anglian is using a diversified approach to spotting areas of leakage faster, allowing for quicker action on repairs that tend to be less expensive if caught early.

That updated effort focused on a reservoir near Colchester, which like the rest of eastern England is suffering from considerably reduced rainfall this year.

Previously, drones equipped with thermal sensors were flown to collect data along pipeline routes around Colchester that allowed Anglian to create maps whose temperature differentials signaled likely breaches. Chris Utton, Anglian’s intensive leak delivery manager, said analysis using FLIR software produced a color or greyscale diagram of the surveyed zone, with warmer spots surrounded by cooler areas (or vice versa in summer) usually indicative of network seepage.

Taking into account the record heat waves and effects of diminished rainfall, meanwhile, Anglian decided to also use its drones as aerial eyeballs, scouring terrain above its pipelines for evidence of leaking water benefiting what should be thirsty foliage.

“Our drones are looking for unusual flora growth which, during periods of dry weather like we’ve seen this summer, can indicate leaks on our water mains,” Utton explains. “These leaks are usually really difficult to find. In the past, drones have helped us find and fix leaks on sections of pipe that we had previously planned to replace. This technology can save us up to £7,000 per flight in water lost through leakage, and tens of thousands of pounds preventing unnecessary pipe replacements, helping us keep customers’ bills low.”

Indeed, undetected leaks that continue for longer periods of time not only produce expensive loss of water, but also gradually enlarge breach points – and favor corrosion within amid soggy soil – resulting in bigger, costlier, and more disruptive repairs.

But by combining onboard drone tech with both logic and botanical surveillance, Anglian is saving itself and its clients potentially millions in unnecessary and expensive waste. 

“This year’s drought has given us the opportunity to spot leaks in a new way,” Utton says.

 Photo: Anglian Water


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