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Water Sampling with Drones

March 03, 2023

Water sampling can be used to test bodies of water for contamination, whether by environmental pollution or invasive organisms, and to conduct biological characterization.

However, conventional methods of water sampling can be expensive and disruptive to the environment. The use of drones for water sampling is a cost effective and environmentally friendly option that eliminates many of the problems associated with conventional sampling. Drone sampling requires fewer resources and is less likely to interfere with sensitive environments. Drones also eliminate risks for human samplers, for example, when recovering water from mining tailings or water bodies that are very difficult to access.

SGS SmartDrone

SGS SmartDrone is an innovative solution for drone water sampling, developed by SGS, together with the University of Linköping, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, Sparv Embedded AB and Gunnorp Technology/InnovationskraftAB. SmartDrone consists of a floating platform with fillable syringes that are triggered via remote control. A drone hovers or floats near the platform.

The SmartDrone platform can accommodate two to six syringes, providing the flexibility to take multiple samples in a single trip. The syringes are easily replaced and can be treated as disposable or used several times, depending on the purpose and risk of contamination or spread of pathogens.

SmartDrone can be equipped with sensors for oxygen, conductivity and pH. Results can be observed and stored onsite. The equipment can easily fit in a large backpack and be transported in a small car, so that the sampling can be carried out by one person.

Case study in Portugal: Water quality monitoring off Madeira Island

Phytoplankton blooms, also known as red tides, are caused by the sudden, uncontrolled growth of microalgae. They occur in coastal systems around the world, and can cause great harm by:

  • Removing oxygen from the water, leading to massive losses of marine life
  • Introducing toxic substances into the food chain, which can result in cases of poisoning and severe allergic reactions
  • Affecting the color, transparency and odor of bathing water, which can have a significant impact on tourism

Because microalgae blooms can easily be confused with polluting discharges, it is important to be able discern one from the other so that correct preventive solutions can be applied in the future.

As part of the Improvement of the Quality of Bathing and Coastal Waters in Macaronesia (ABACO) project, the Regional Directorate for the Environment and Climate Change of the Regional Government of Madeira has asked SGS to biologically characterize a series of coastal spots for presence of microalgae species. To do this, SGS has taken on a one-year project in which drones are used to collect samples of surface seawater from Madeira's main coastal beaches.

After aerial retrieval, the seawater samples are filtered and preserved with a special solution to maintain the integrity of the genetic material of any living organisms they may contain. This environmental DNA (E-DNA) is then analyzed at SGS's laboratory in Lisbon to identify a broad range of microscopic species, including phytoplankton and bacteria, within the samples, and characterize their communities. The ability to use DNA sequencing to broadly identify multiple microorganisms has led to the increased use of E-DNA in environmental sampling.

For further information, please contact:

Sara Pardal
Global Biosciences Center

Environmental Biologist – E-DNA specialist

SGS Portugal, SA
Pólo Tecnológico de Lisboa
Rua Cesina Adães Bermudes, lote 11, nº1
1600-604 Lisboa – Portugal
t: +351 21 710 42 00

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