Regularly testing waterways and reservoirs is a never-ending responsibility for utility companies and local safety authorities and generally involves – as you might expect – either a boat or at least waders. Nixie uses a drone to do the job instead, which makes the process faster, cheaper, and a lot less wet.
The most common methods of testing water quality haven’t changed in a long time, partly because they’re effective and straightforward, partly because really, what else are you going to do? No software or web platform out there will reach into the middle of the river and pull out a liter of water.
But with the advent of drones that are powerful and reliable enough to operate in professional and industrial conditions, the situation has changed. Nixie is a solution from Reign Maker’s drone specialists that includes either a custom-made sampling arm or an in-situ sensor arm.
The sample collector is basically a long vertical arm with a locking cage for a sample container. You put the empty container in there, fly the drone to the location, and then dip your arm. When it flies back, the filled container can be removed while the drone is hovering and a new one is put in place to take it to the next location. (This switch can be safely made in winds up to 18 MPH and currents up to 5 knots, the company said.)
This enables quick sampling at multiple locations – the drone’s battery lasts around 20 minutes, which is enough for two to four samples, depending on the weather and distance. Replace the battery and go to the next location and repeat everything.
For comparison, Reign Maker referred to the New York Water Authority, which collects 30 samples per day from boats and other methods at an approximate cost (including labor, boat fuel, etc.) of $ 100 per sample. Workers using Nixie were able to take an average of 120 samples per day for about $ 10 each. Sure, New York is probably one of the more expensive places (like everything else) for this, but the deltas are pretty big. (The spoon attachment itself is $ 850, but it doesn’t come with a drone.)
It should be mentioned that the drone does not work autonomously; It has a pilot who flies with line of sight (which simplifies the rules and requirements). Even so, it means a team of two with a handful of spare batteries can cover the same space that would normally require a boat crew and more than a little fuel. The system currently works with the M600 and M300 RTK drones from DJI.
The drone method has the additional advantage that it has precise GPS positions for each sample and that the water does not disturb the immersion. No matter how carefully you step or steer a boat, you will be pushing the water anywhere, which may affect the contents of the example, but it will not if you move over your head.
A smarter version of the sampler is under development that contains a number of sensors that can carry out on-site tests for all the most common factors: temperature, pH, interfering organisms, various chemicals. Skipping the step of bringing the water back to a lab for testing streamlines the process immensely, as you might expect.
Reign Maker is currently working with the New York Department of the Environment and is in discussion with other agencies. While the system would take some initial investment, training, and getting used to, it is likely difficult not to be fooled by the possibility of faster, cheaper testing.
Ultimately, the company hopes to offer a more traditional SaaS offering (in keeping with the zeitgeist), where the water quality maps are updated in real time with new tests. That’s still in the drawing board phase, but as soon as a few customers sign up, it looks a lot more attractive.