Drone technology is creating exciting opportunities across the water industry. South East Queensland bulk water provider Seqwater is indeed discovering the benefits of drone technology, both internally and working externally with service providers and customers, particularly in assisting with asset and catchment management.

Seqwater’s program of drone operations to date has mainly been used to assist planning for the protection of water catchments – or what Seqwater refers to as source protection.

Seqwater Project Definition Planner, Julian O’Mara – who has been championing the use of drone technology within the organisation – said drones were becoming increasingly important in day-to-day operations.

“As the program gains momentum and success, other areas of Seqwater are finding opportunities to utilise drone technology to improve employee safety and productivity,” Mr O’Mara said.

“The organisation is seeing a return on investment very quickly through productivity measures alone. The cost of drone hardware is typically covered within months of purchase.”

During Seqwater’s trial process for using drones, numerous case studies were developed and demonstrated how the application of this technology could significantly benefit various areas of the business.

“During the development of the program it has been important to set organisational conditions of use for operators and cover off on important aspects of the program such as insurance and training,” Mr O’Mara said.

“Once the parameters of operation are set, then it’s simply a matter of providing this tool to the experts in different areas within Seqwater, so they can identify ways to apply the technology for the benefit of the organisation.”

Improving catchment management

Seqwater began its drone program with just four employees using the technology in 2017. Since then, 12 more Seqwater employees have been upskilled and equipped with drones. Drone training and certification continues to support employees in their work.

“Even though more and more Seqwater employees are being trained to use drones, we do still engage private consultants to complete more complex work,” Mr O’Mara said.

At this stage, Seqwater primarily uses drone technology to assist the day-to-day work by the Source Protection Planning team. This work includes carrying out condition assessments planning and monitoring for investment in Seqwater’s water catchments.

One of the challenges faced by the Source Protection Planning team is the sheer scale of the monitoring and management of Seqwater’s catchments.

Unlike the management of an asset such as a water treatment plant which has a relatively small footprint, the source water catchments managed by Seqwater cover more than 17,000km of waterway across South East Queensland. This presents a challenging environment for the planning and prioritisation of Seqwater’s investment program.

“Aerial imagery and other data captured from drones significantly assists our planners in gathering timely, high quality data at a low cost, empowering the decision making process,” Mr O’Mara said.

“With drone technology available, each trip into the field now results in the acquisition of data that has much greater value to the immediate planning process as well as future assessments of investment.

“As a result, this improves the effectiveness and efficiency of the benefits realisation processes.”

Beyond the Source Protection space, Seqwater has trained and equipped Rangers and Dam Operators with drones to improve the safety of their roles in the field. Seqwater Hydrographers and Project Managers are also using drones to assist them in their roles.

A variety of business applications

Moving forward, Seqwater has a number of other employees looking to incorporate the technology and are also trialling specialised equipment to build on the program.

Seqwater’s application of drone technology is currently being used to provide information for:

  • Condition assessments of built assets
  • Monitoring of equipment in difficult to reach locations
  • Up-to-date imagery of project sites for project managers
  • Remediation planning and monitoring of landslides that impact water quality in the Lake Baroon catchment on the Sunshine Coast
  • Weed management along rivers
  • Data acquisition for a dairy agricultural practice improvement program, which is aimed at reducing risks associated with pathogen pollution in source waters
  • Management of erosion around source catchments and looking at the impacts of floods
  • Seqwater is also looking at opportunities to implement drone technology to assist with water sampling, biosecurity, fire management and high risk in-field activities such as weed spraying on dam walls

The advantages of Seqwater applying this technology include:

Safety: The use of drones can be used to minimise risks associated with field work and asset inspections. Avoiding working at heights in some instances and facilitating access to areas in the field that present safety risks (snakes, slips/trip, steep eroded river banks etc)

Efficiencies: The use of drones can achieve both time and economic efficiencies for the company, making employees more productive and reducing the cost of outsourcing for simple drone-based tasks. In some instances, the use of drones can avoid the need for some manual tasks altogether, such as working at heights for asset inspections.

Innovation: There are countless opportunities for water industry employees to improve upon current practices from the use of drones – and find new uses to better manage assets. This can be achieved by providing this tool to experts in their field and allowing them to discover how they can apply it

The initial barrier in incorporating drone technology at Seqwater was understanding the regulations, with significant training and licensing required in the past to establish in-house programs. Fortunately, recent changes to regulations by the Federal Government have enabled industries to adopt this technology with beneficial outcomes.

When developing an in-house drone program, it’s vital to have clear safety protocols and management of the drone program established early to reduce risk and make sure employees adhere to the protocols on the job.

Large data sets are produced using drones, so it’s important the organisation has put systems in place to manage the data generated in acquiring aerial imagery.

Cloud processing of imagery is a powerful tool in producing maps and other data, so it’s also important that licenses and agreement with suppliers of these services are understood.

For Seqwater, the use of drone technology is steadily becoming part of normal work with different departments within the organisation exploring its application, and looking to equip different employees with drones as part of their toolkit.

For Seqwater’s Source Protection Planners in particular, drones have become a powerful tool, providing a rich source of data when in the field that assists with decision making for their investment program.

Lauren ‘LJ’ Butler is the Assistant Editor of Utility magazine and has been part of the team at Monkey Media since 2018.

After completing a Bachelor of Media, Communications and Professional Writing at the University of Wollongong in 2014, and prior to writing about the utility sector, LJ worked as a Journalist and Sub Editor across the horticulture, hardware, power equipment, construction and accommodation industries with publishers such as Glenvale Publications, Multimedia Publishing and Bean Media Group.

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