The treatment plants, sewers, and drains that make up wastewater systems are some of our most important infrastructure. Keeping them reliable is essential for public health and environmental protection. 

It’s not an easy job: 62 billion gallons of liquid waste are conveyed and processed by about 16,000 wastewater treatment plants every day. The equipment to do it is complex — pipelines, tunnels, basins, filters, tanks, blowers, UV lamps, pump stations, and more. This infrastructure is used continuously and requires high reliability, otherwise it risks significant ecological and sanitary consequences. As a result, these systems need a lot of inspections, some done daily.

Drones can make this smelly, hazardous work easier. Drones are a tool for getting wastewater infrastructure inspections done faster, while capturing crucial data and protecting workers from risks. 

Here are five key ways drones are or could be used for wastewater treatment plants inspections, and how this versatile technology can help wastewater management companies meet emerging challenges.

Wastewater Statistics

Sources: ASCE and Statista

1. Inspecting sewage tunnels with robotics

Waste can cause concrete and metal erosion in the tunnels and sewage pipelines that convey wastewater to central plants for treatment. Fats, oils and greases can also build up, clogging pipes. Inspections are necessary to detect these issues before they result in leaking, breaks, collapses, or sewer overflows. 

One industry player estimates that sewer inspections conducted by drone are twice as efficient as human inspections and 40 percent less expensive per meter of inspection. Many different types of robots are available for the task, including swimming drones, robots on wheels or treads, and flying drones in cages which allows them to operate in confined spaces.

Improved precision is one of the main advantages of using robotics for sewage tunnel inspections. Legacy methods like rafts or sleds mounted with closed-circuit cameras may only show only one angle as they speed by on the current. Drones can stop, take a closer look, and pinpoint the exact locations of problems. This can reduce the need to send workers into bio-hazardous environments while cutting response time when there’s an emergency like a sewer line break.

2. Using drone thermal sensors to monitor temperatures

Drones mounted with thermal sensors are well suited to quickly monitor surface temperatures, especially when such temperatures differ from the surrounding environment. In Sweden, drones are being used to measure temperatures in wastewater collection tanks and detect runoff water. Such data could alert plant managers to leaks, overflows, or other plant failures, and could help them detect the source of the problem. It can also help identify areas that are losing water or have storm water infiltration.

3. Monitoring and evaluating odors by drone

How bad is that smell? By combining sensors and artificial intelligence, the SNIFFDRONE system knows. This experimental platform being developed in Spain features nearly two dozen chemical sensors and a sampling system mounted on a drone. It is intended to collect chemical samples for lab analysis, predict odor concentration, locate sources, and produce 3D maps displaying the results.

Such aerial odor inspections allow treatment plant managers to quickly assess large areas for odor intensity, reaching places that may be hard to access. Ultimately, it could enable plants to take far more effective actions to control odors and minimize impacts on neighboring communities.

4. Taking samples of wastewater effluent

Another Spanish team has conducted trials using drones for collecting samples of effluent, the water discharged from a treatment plant back into a river or stream. The drones were programmed to take samples from designated locations for further analysis. Uncrewed aircraft are ideally suited for collecting samples and performing other tasks in hard-to-reach or remote areas such as river basins.

Wastewater treatment plant by drone

5. Creating models to plan for wastewater plant updates

Most wastewater treatment plants are designed with an average lifespan of 40 to 50 years, and the clock is running out for many of these facilities. Drones make inspections of aging assets faster and more cost effective, making it possible to better track real-time conditions.

Drone data can create a digital record of equipment over time, which can help determine maintenance and new building priorities. And when it comes to designing new facilities, drones are a powerful technology for performing highly accurate site surveys and generating 3D models for construction projects.

Other ways drones can help the wastewater sector with resilience

As wastewater management companies deal with aging infrastructure and progressing technologies, drones have the potential to help in many ways:

  • Leveraging thermal sensors at times of low inflow to keep tabs on infrastructure and processes that are sensitive to temperature.
  • Modeling sedimentation and pollutant loads that will impact water treatment and flow rates following heavy rainfall or fires.
  • Quickly assessing damage and triaging repairs following big storms that flood wastewater systems.
  • Protecting wastewater infrastructure from security incidents like intrusions and vandalism that could disrupt operations. (Some drones are being integrated into video management systems for security, allowing mobile visibility into unexpected activity in secured areas.)

One major benefit: safety improvements

Drones can help collect photos, videos, and other data without putting people in harm’s way. This may be especially valuable if there’s a safety incident, such as a chemical spill, sewer system section collapse, pipe break, or suspected gas leak.

Take sewer system inspections. The workforce risks include traffic near manholes, falls, infection from biohazards, insects and biting animals, exposure to flammable or toxic gases, asphyxiation from low oxygen levels, or drowning during high-flow storm events. Drones remove a lot of these risks by keeping the human inspectors out of harm’s way while the robot looks around. They can also reduce the need for costly safety equipment like blowers, scuba gear, breathing apparatus, and winches.

Or consider wastewater plant inspections, which have typically relied on visual observations from technicians walking around and the monitoring of pollutants to determine the level of asset performance. Worker risks here include moving equipment, exposure to chemicals like chlorine, slips, falls, and biological hazards. Uncrewed aircraft can get eyes on asset wear and tear or mechanical failures from the air, eliminating a lot of these dangers. And they can do it with high precision: One recent study found that using drone imagery was 95% accurate in detecting failures in activated sludge assets.

How wastewater treatment plants can get started with drones

More than 238 million Americans count on sewage infrastructure and treatment facilities to collect, treat, and reclaim water, one of our most valuable resources. Drones can help get this important job done more while improving safety, minimizing disruption, and providing rich data from a new perspective.

Interested in launching drones to support your wastewater services? Skyward can help you get off the ground in a matter of weeks. See what it takes with Skyward’s Program Start Package.

Skyward Drone Program Start Package