Drones to predict where water pipes are at risk of bursting

Friday, 26 February 2021

With leaking and burst water pipes costing water authorities and consumers time and money, as well as wasting a precious resource, researchers at the University of Newcastle are developing drone technology to help predict which areas, and even which specific pipes, are at risk of water loss through corrosion.

Researchers launching a drone with LiDAR remote sensing equipment
The University of Newcastle LiDAR, soil moisture and corrosion investigation is part of a larger ‘Innovative smart water management’ project coordinated by NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) and led by Sydney Water.

The risk of degradation of the underground water supply network depends on the age of cast iron pipes and the amount of moisture in the ground surrounding them and until quite recently, was assessed based on knowing its age and observing the pipes. More recently, sensor devices have been deployed at specific sites to measure water flow to indicate leaks or breaks.

Associate Professor In-Young Yeo and Professor Rob Melchers, from the University of Newcastle School of Engineering, along with PhD student David Bretreger, are developing and testing a new technique to add to the leak detection ‘toolbox’.

“By attaching a device called a LiDAR to a drone we can accurately see where the lower lying areas are and, where land is not covered by buildings or concrete, we can also tell how wet the ground is,” said Associate Professor In-Young.

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing method that uses a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths can then be used to make digital 3-D representations of the landscape and indicate the amount of water in the ground.

The University of Newcastle LiDAR, soil moisture and corrosion investigation is part of a larger ‘Innovative smart water management’ project coordinated by NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) and led by Sydney Water (see video).

With a network of over 22,000 km of water pipes, Sydney Water is undertaking a number of measures to protect its assets. Current leak detection programs have already reduced water loss by about 30 billion litres per year. Understanding wet patches around pipes will assist Sydney Water to target further condition assessment and pipe failure prediction.

Brought together by the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN), Sydney Water, Hunter Water and seven other water utilities, are collaborating with the University of Newcastle and four other universities in NSW and ACT, to develop technologies to assess the condition of water supply networks.

“Our research promises to inform corrosion assessments of aging infrastructure, allowing targeting of maintenance and replacements and preventing expensive and disruptive breaks and leaks,” said Associate Professor In-Young.

“We know this technique works so we are now looking to increase the accuracy of wetness detection and we’re investigating automation to enable observation of even larger areas.”

Looking to the future of this technology, Associate Professor In-Young sees these emerging techniques being used beyond assessing the state of water infrastructure to such applications as monitoring wetlands and managing irrigation.


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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.