Part of the European Commission’s €80 billion Horizon 2020 program, IntCatch – or ‘the development and application of novel, integrated tools for monitoring and managing catchments’ – is an €8.7 million (US $9.1 million) project that aims to improve systems for monitoring and reporting on water quality across Europe. The project focuses on analyzing the health and quality of four European rivers and lakes: Lake Garda in Italy, the River Yliki in Greece, the Ter River in Barcelona, Spain and four small rivers in the UK. The team will spend the first year of the project conducting an assessment of which UK rivers will be included in the project, although the River Lee (also the Lea) in the east of London will likely be included. 

Over the course of four years, researchers will collect and analyze the genome of the bacteria in the water and make the results available to the public. IntCatch is working closely with a team of 20 partners spread across seven countries, with local partners in the UK, Italy, Spain, Greece, Austria, Germany and Norway, and with all efforts being coordinated by London’s University of Brunel.

The team will assess changes to the water and measure the impact of human activity and environmental factors on rivers and lakes, although the main focus of the project is developing tools and a methodology for monitoring water quality. According to Mark Scrimshaw, International Coordinator for IntCatch at the University of Brunel, London, the project will act as a pilot to demonstrate how water quality can be monitored, hopefully resulting in “a market uptake of the project.” “The project is not really about looking at the data, but about the tools to do this. We will use the boats in areas where we know people are installing treatment systems, and at Lake Garda we plan to install a treatment system…to see if our boats and sensors can detect a change. There are no targets in the project to actually improve the water quality. It is about demonstrating the boats,” he explains. He stresses that the objective of the project is to validate whether or not the boats can detect the difference in the water quality before and after treatment.

According to a study published in 2014, organic chemicals jeopardize Europe’s freshwater ecosystems. The study, which analyzed governmental monitoring data from 4,000 sites across Europe, presented “strong evidence that chemicals threaten the ecological integrity and consequently the biodiversity of almost half of the water bodies on a continental scale.” The study monitored 223 organic chemicals and found that they exerted acute lethal effects in 14% of the sites, and the chronic long-term effects in 42% of the sites, affecting sensitive fish, invertebrate and algae species.

Building A Fleet Of Boat Drones

In an attempt to develop a system to monitor Europe’s freshwater ecosystems, IntCatch will deploy radio-controlled drones across the rivers and lakes in question to collect and analyze water samples. The drones, which have been designed by Italian researchers for the project, cost €5,000 (US $5,600) each, comparing favorably to commercial drones used for other projects, which can cost up to €20,000 (US $22,500) each. Rather than building the boats from scratch or purchasing fully equipped boats, the team has modified commercially available boats with low-cost sensors, GPS, a controller board and batteries.

Using AI, the boats will be able to coordinate with one another, making it possible for an operator to control a small fleet of boats. Alessandro Farinelli, Researcher at the University of Verona, explains that the AI allows the operators to provide higher-level goals to the system rather than limiting them to operating a single boat. With this model, an operator may input commands like “collect data in an area,” or “visit a set of interesting locations,” to the system, leaving AI to determine the lower level commands that should be sent to the different platforms to achieve the goal. He explains that autonomy is key to operating the boats flexibly, particularly since boats often operate beyond the communication range and operators cannot tele-operate more than one boat at a time.

Farinelli explains that the AI used for the project combines different modules, “…ranging from localization (fusing data from GPS and compass to localize the boat in the world), path planning and motion control (operate the motors to reach a desired destination safely) coordination (deciding which boat should perform a given task) and planning/human interaction (i.e., simplifying interaction with the system by providing simple mechanisms to interrupt and change the actions of the boats during mission execution).” He explains that the team also uses machine learning techniques for data analysis in order to devise energy-efficient pathways for the boats to move within the water. This entails “planning paths that prioritize points which might be more interesting to assess the quality of the water,” he adds.

According to Scrimshaw, the boats and sensors will be fine-tuned during the first year of the project, and the integration of sensors, data systems and data display systems will be refined over the course of the project. The team will also work to develop and refine their hand-held test kits.

Scrimshaw notes that although the product that they have developed is not new, the approach of engaging citizens and other stakeholders in the process is. He notes that one of IntCatch’s main objectives is to allow “…citizens and other groups to become involved in looking after their rivers and lakes.”

According to the team, the public can and should be encouraged – whether directly or indirectly – to monitor the quality of water in their rivers and lakes, and IntCatch will likely make its own data available to users via a mobile app and online. “We want to see how people engage in different situations in different countries,” adds Scrimshaw. He explains that the diversity of partners “…engages different communities, with different interests, which we can learn from to go forward in the future.”

Lake Garda in Italy.

Lake Garda in Italy.

One of the team’s major obstacles remains the calibration and validation of data collected at different sites across Europe. He explains that the group has yet to create a separate unit to ensure that the boat systems and sensors are calibrated and validated every step of the way. The UK’s Environment Agency (EA) – a project partner – currently calibrates and validates data, acting as a centralized facility where sensors are calibrated for pH, ammonia and other compounds. The team foresees having their own unit responsible for calibration and validation.

But the team’s vision goes far beyond a four-year project; Scrimshaw explains that the team’s proposal includes developing a business that can advise people across Europe on what they can do to improve their own rivers. He explains that the business should be able to advise on the design of monitoring programs, lease the tools to monitor the water (in this case, boats), and advise them on how to improve water quality. He notes that the model, while initially conceived  for Europe, is potentially scalable to other countries around the world.