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Institute for Clean Water

Focus Area 1: Remote Water Sensors and Targeted Sampling

Lakes and rivers are a major source of municipal drinking water and provide valuable recreational and tourism resources to local communities. Remote drone sampling technology will make it easier to monitor and maintain water quality in many areas that have been historically difficult to sample. 

Drone Technology for Remote, Autonomous Water Quality Sampling

This research focus area centers around sampling and monitoring water quality more efficiently, in more fine detail and in more difficult-to-reach locales.

We are developing aerial drone technology that can fly longer distances, take more samples from both large and small waterways and access remote areas previously difficult to get to for water sampling.

Sensor technology we have developed to attach to these drones detects microorganisms and contamination in the water. This data helps us choose which water areas to sample and acts as reference information for samples when they return to the lab.


Research Significance

  • Many water areas are difficult to access by humans due to shallow water, rural location and other factors that make them difficult to get to. Nonetheless, these waterways are often used for fishing and recreation and have an influence on other waterways where they connect.

  • Significant resources are required to do manual sampling at a hyper-local level. Aerial drone technology will deepen and broaden the understanding of water quality across the state by allowing sampling and monitoring of water quality in new and smaller sample areas, as well as faster sampling of large bodies of water.

  • The development of these drone-borne sensor systems will allow for faster, easier and finer scale sampling and measurement of water quality.

  • The drones and their sensors can use UV light to detect trace amounts of contamination in water like proteins, pesticides, bacteria and viruses.


Groundbreaking Research

Understanding water quality and contamination at a finer scale and more efficiently allows for never-before-available information about water in very specific neighborhoods, locales and remote waterways. This new information will lead to a greater understanding of the factors that lead to water contamination and truer water quality information for individual locations.

These drones and their sensors will also be, in many ways, the first of their kind. In particular, the sensors developed will allow for the first widely applicable drone systems with the power and size of existing underwater sensors. 

Research Challenge

One challenge for water quality managers is documenting the high spatial and temporal variability in both the source of contaminants and the environmental impacts, which confound attempts to mitigate water quality problems. Most state agencies have limited budgets and personnel to monitor water quality over large areas. 

Purpose: The system will be dedicated to remote sensing so that pumping water will not be required for onsite water measurements but for sampling only. This will significantly increase the speed of operations. The new drone will have modular sensing capabilities. The system will be designed to allow the easy swap or remote sensors so they can be used in subsequent flights to scan the water resources for a different set of measurements. 

Research vision: We envision increased spatial coverage, rapid "at-will" deployment, and faster sampling of large water bodies. Aerial drones can significantly increase the ease, temporal resolution and spatial scale of water sampling. Moreover, a drone-borne water sampling system can eliminate the risks of collecting water samples from hazardous locations by autonomously collecting samples without human intervention.

Drone types: Aerial drones (Uncrewed Aircraft Systems; UAS)

Sensor types: In situ sensors and remote sensors; optical absorbance, optical fluorescence, Raman scattering, turbidity and conductivity sensor types


SC Impact

This research will have a positive impact on the understanding of water quality and new ways to manage risks to ecosystems across South Carolina. While this is a state-wide research focus, certain areas of public interest will benefit greatly from this institute's work. 

Increased Awareness of Water Quality Issues

This research will lead to deeper and broader understanding of the water quality in our state while also seeking to educate the public about the safety and quality of water where they live, work and play.

Wildlife and Aquatic Ecosystems

Understanding the health of aquatic ecosystems leads to maintaining the health of animals and humans in water and on land. This research will help protect our local wildlife and aquatic ecosystems, enabling them to thrive. 

Tourism and Economic Development

This research will seek to understand the differences between objective measures of water quality and subjective perceptions, which will aid tourism and industry for the advancement of our state's economic development. 

Environmental Awareness

This research will raise overall awareness about the effects of water quality on the environment and why it is so important to protect our waterways as a state.


Notable Awards, Outcomes, and Practical Uses for this Research 

We are constantly making progress with this research and planning real-world uses to improve water quality maintenance and understanding across South Carolina.

Institute for Clean Water

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