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Can drones be used to conduct water sampling in aquatic environments? A review

Lally, H.T., O'Connor, I., Jensen, O.P., Graham, C.T.
The Science of the total environment 2019 v.670 pp. 569-575
aquatic ecosystems, aquatic environment, cost benefit analysis, experimental design, freshwater, planning, sampling
Advancements in drone technology have seen the development of drone-assisted water sampling payloads resulting in the ability of drones to retrieve water samples and physico-chemical data from aquatic ecosystems. The application of drones for water sampling provides the potential to fulfil many aspects of the biological and physico-chemical sampling required to meet large-scale water sampling programmes. This paper reviews the achievements made in the development of drone platforms; advances in specially designed water sampling payloads; advances in incorporating off-the-shelf probes and the ability of drone-assisted water sampling payloads to capture water and physico-chemical data from freshwater environments. However, drone-assisted water sampling is still in its infancy and several key limitations include the small volume of water captured via drones to date, the low rate of successful sample capture and the legislative restrictions limiting the distance drones can be flown from the operator. Of critical importance, however, are the clear inconsistencies observed between water chemical parameters obtained using drone-assisted and traditional water sampling methods. Consequently, water samples and physico-chemical data obtained using drones may not provide the level of reliability and accuracy needed to meet the needs of large-scale water sampling programmes. Solutions aimed at addressing these limitations and developing the potential of drones to conduct water samples include: modifying larger drones with greater payload capacity, facilitating the capture of greater volumes of water; technological developments to increase success rates of water capture; planning fieldwork for operation beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS); employing real-time physico-chemical probes; and integrating robust statistical experimental designs. In addition, detailed cost benefit analyses are required to investigate if drones would result in a meaningful financial saving to water sampling programmes. However, it is envisaged that drone-assisted water sampling will act as a pivotal supporting tool if such current limitations can be addressed by future research.