Project Advancing Tools To Remotely Monitor Water Quality

A man on the shore of a lake operate a drone flying overhead.
Using a drone, Rupesh Bhandari, a graduate student in geography, tests new ways to assess water quality.

A project led by The University of Alabama is developing software to enable monitoring and assessing the quality of freshwater reservoirs using satellite and drone technology, potentially saving time and cost.

Supported by the Water Research Foundation, the research is a partnership with the University of Cincinnati for a new generation of adaptive software tools to evaluate and demonstrate the use of satellite observations and cutting-edge drone remote sensing technology in drinking water quality monitoring and ecological assessment of freshwater resources. This innovative project brings together comprehensive field assessments of drinking water reservoirs in Alabama, Ohio and Georgia.

“The tools we will build from this project will help local communities, water resource planners and managers, state and federal officials, and research scientists to monitor and protect freshwater water resources, generating enormous operational, environmental, social and economic benefits,” said Dr. Hongxing Liu, UA professor of geography leading the project.

The nearly $200,000 funding support is part of the Alabama Water Institute’s commitment for UA to be a premier research and education institution around water-related issues.

Lakes, reservoirs and rivers are invaluable inland freshwater resources, but they are encountering widespread degradation and decline. Signs of this decline, such as high turbidity, poor water quality, eutrophication and harmful algal blooms, are becoming increasingly apparent.

Conventional methods of water quality and ecological monitoring are time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive, falling short in terms of both coverage and frequency. The need to develop efficient monitoring tools is pressing. These tools should capitalize on the newest satellite and drone remote sensing techniques to provide accurate and timely information for monitoring water quality, gauging ecosystem health, detecting anomalies, and issuing public health advisories.

The project will combine on-location surveys with cutting-edge drone hyperspectral and satellite multispectral remote sensing technologies, leveraging the power of the latest machine-learning models.

The goal is to produce a set of water quality monitoring tools usable by water resource managers in all types of settings. These tools could significantly reduce the time and cost of monitoring the water quality status of lakes and reservoirs, particularly where they are either inaccessible or expensive to collect on-site water quality samples.

Along with Liu at UA, the project includes Dr. Yuehan Lu, UA associate professor of geological sciences. From Cincinnati, the project involves Dr. Richard Beck and Dr. Susanna Tong who are both professors of geography.

WRF is the leading research organization advancing the science of all water to meet the evolving needs of the water sector.