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User-friendly boats seek out water pollutants in European rivers and lakes

An EU-funded project developed 'smart' boats to measure and track pollutants in European lakes and rivers.

Digital Economy
Industrial Technologies
Food and Natural Resources

Water quality is a crucial indicator of the health of river ecosystems, yet a large number of European bodies of water do not meet a ‘good ecological status’. Despite billions spent on testing water quality, current monitoring approaches lack spatial and temporal resolution, which means pollution is not sufficiently detected and fixed. Reliable, real-time water quality data from sensors serves as an evidence base to enable effective tackling of pollution on a catchment-wide basis. The EU-funded INTCATCH project exploited advances in monitoring technology to develop cost-effective, user-friendly, automated ‘smart’ boats equipped with multi-parameter sensors. The technology is not built from scratch; rather, it uses commercially available boats with low-cost sensors.

Dealing with water in a smart way

Conventional water quality monitoring strategies usually involve an officer going to site and sending a sample to a lab, with results becoming available two or three weeks later. This approach can help map local pollution but has limited impact in improving water quality across a larger area. “INTCATCH’s high-tech approach takes floating ‘smart labs’ out to rivers and lakes to test water quality, making it easier to monitor and trace pollution,” notes project coordinator Mark Scrimshaw. “Rather than relying on experts, ordinary citizens will be able to use the boats to collect evidence themselves and find out just how healthy their local river is,” adds Scrimshaw. The autonomous boats controlled by a handheld radio device provide better access and coverage of water bodies. Innovative sensors enable mobile, real-time water quality monitoring and mapping – for example, they detect Escherichia coli and pesticides. Next-generation DNA test kits provide fast and accurate analysis of the genome of the bacteria in the water. All the evidence collected is then transferred to the cloud and can be processed by decision-support software to help communities and authorities make decisions about how to best help the river.

Catching up with INTCATCH technology

Demonstration activities focused on analysing the health and quality of the strategic water reservoir Lake Yliki in Greece, surface waters in Berlin, urban rivers in London, and the river Ter in Spain. Algal blooms, suspended solids and turbidity in Lake Yliki are just some of the challenges that need to be addressed. The high urban runoff carrying pollutants such as oil, dirt, and chemicals, directly to the urban rivers seriously harms water quality. Increased conductivity caused by surface mining activities adversely affects water quality in the river Ter. Other potential sources of pollution that affect catchments are wastewater from kitchen sinks and washing machines or even from industrial drainage erroneously connected to the surface water drain. These pollutants cause high concentrations of ammonia, phosphate and nitrate to build up in the rivers. The data generated on water quality will be stored in an online database that can be accessed by anyone using a web or mobile interface. People will also be able to query the database to improve their knowledge about the aquatic ecosystems in their vicinity. This knowledge base will prove invaluable to stakeholders in effective water management.

Keywords

INTCATCH, water quality, river, pollution, sensors, drone, radio-controlled boat, decision support software

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