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How water drones can help Singapore sustain its water sources

Written by Khamila Mulia Published on     5 mins read

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Tech companies are developing drones capable of inspecting and protecting freshwater reservoirs in the city-state.

As a tiny city-state with an area of approximately 728 square kilometers, Singapore has limited natural resources. Singapore is considered one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, as it lacks natural freshwater resources and has limited land for water storage facilities.

Despite its natural limitations, Singapore has been an example of best practices for urban water services. The totality of Singapore’s population has access to drinking water, while wastewater is all collected and treated. At the same time, the entire water supply system, from waterworks to consumers, is metered.

Water demand in Singapore currently stands at about 430 million gallons a day, enough to fill 782 Olympic-sized swimming pools, while the average Singaporean uses 141 liters, or 37 gallons, of water every day. The non-domestic sector is currently responsible for 55% of the country’s water consumption, according to Singapore’s National Water Agency, or PUB. Demand is however expected to double by 2060, with the non-domestic sector consuming about 70% of the total supply.

The increased demand has driven the city-state to seek solutions for water security. Singapore currently imports around 250 million gallons of water a day from the Johor River in Malaysia. The arrangement is defined by the 1962 Water Agreement between the two countries. However, Singapore needs to become water self-sufficient by 2060, as the water agreement will expire in 2061.

To reach this goal, the PUB has developed several strategies to sustain the country’s water needs, including increasing water recycling, desalinating more seawater, collecting more rainwater, as well as increasing water catchment areas from 66% to 90% of the nation’s land area.

So far, the state has been doing a “good job” in preserving its water supply, according to Simon Baldwin, global head of circularity for Secondmuse and director of The Incubation Network, an impact-driven initiative that sources, supports, and scales holistic innovative solutions to combat plastic pollution. “The government has led efforts to drive innovation on the infrastructure front,” he told KrASIA, mentioning the newly launched Keppel Marina East desalination facility, which is capable of treating both sea and reservoir water.

“However, when we step back to examine the larger ecosystem picture, pollution remains a top concern for our water systems,” Baldwin added.

The role of water drones

The country has adopted several new technologies to materialize its water security goals. For example, this year, the PUB started to deploy water drones at six of the country’s water reservoirs to monitor their water quality and prevent illegal fishing activities.

Thanks to remote sensing systems and cameras capable of delivering video and data, water drones can assess the level of turbidity, algae concentration, and aquatic plant growth in the reservoirs. The devices can also constantly monitor water activity and alert officers in case there is cause for concern or suspicious activity.

The PUB has been working with Singaporean engineering company ST Engineering on this project, following trials last year. The agency expects to save about 5,000 hours of labor that could be redirected to other tasks.

As the demand for drones capable of monitoring water sources is expected to increase, companies have sprung up to serve public and private clients. Two of these startups are Subnero and BeeX.

Subnero, launched in 2012, specializes in underwater wireless networked communications and in-water sensing and monitoring hardware. One of its solutions is the Subnero Water Assessment Network (SWAN), an autonomous robot shaped like a swan that can monitor and assess water quality in surface waters, including lakes and reservoirs, to ensure the quality and availability of drinking water.

Subnero Water Assessment Network (SWAN)
Subnero’s SWAN device looks exactly like a real swan. Photo courtesy of Subnero.

“The SWAN carries sensors that take a periodic reading of the level of PH, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll, which are all indicators of the health of the water body,” Subnero CEO Manu Ignatius told KrASIA. “We get this data in real time, so we can act quickly if we find any problems,” he said.

Conventionally, water monitoring is a task that requires experts to go to different parts of a water source to collect samples and then conduct analyses in a lab, Ignatius said. “This process relies on a lot of manpower and takes several days to get results. This is the challenge that we’re trying to solve.”

Subnero works closely with water utility companies, as well as with the PUB and other agencies in Singapore, Ignatius said. The company also cooperates with environmental research agencies around the world that use its SWAN robots to monitor climate change by detecting variations in the water, he added.

Besides monitoring water sources, water drones can be used for other applications, including detecting leaks in underground water supply networks and blockages in stormwater systems and sewers.

Founded in 2020, BeeX designs and manufactures hovering autonomous underwater vehicles (HAUV) to inspect piers and vessels in the maritime and renewable sectors, including floating solar farms. The firm has been working with local authorities to inspect reservoirs and treatment tanks, which form critical infrastructure for ensuring consistent water supplies.

“HAUVs have a brain of their own, so they can be deployed to inspect large and expensive vessels,” BeeX CEO Grace Chia told KrASIA. “The HAUVs’ artificial intelligence allows large-scale [water] infrastructure to be inspected more efficiently. Complete inspections can also reduce costly repair costs,” she added.

Sustaining Singapore’s water

Pollution is one of the major factors behind the scarcity of drinking water worldwide. By maintaining regular monitoring of water reservoirs, drones could help sustain different water supplies in Singapore in the long run, said Baldwin. “Effective solutions are rarely a result of a random collision. They need planning and expertise, all underpinned by data,” he added.

For instance, collecting comprehensive plastic waste data is important to support the development of solutions to reduce mismanaged plastic waste, as well as to facilitate transparency in waste management. The same concept can be applied in the fight against water pollution, said Baldwin.

Singapore is not alone in employing water drones in its waters. Countries like the UK, South Korea, New Zealand, and Russia have also been deploying similar technology to monitor their water resources and examine pollution patterns. As the technology matures and more countries experience water scarcity problems, unmanned water drone solutions are expected to play a greater role in water preservation strategies.

“The amount of water that we have in Singapore is not adequate to sustain the population here, but we have multiple water sources. Therefore, preventive monitoring technology is becoming crucial to protect water in these catchment areas,” Subnero’s Ignatius said.

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