Researchers Use Drones to Identify Burst Potential of Water Pipes

The University of Newcastle LiDAR, soil moisture, and corrosion investigation is part of a larger “innovative smart water management" project coordinated by NSW Smart Sensing Network and led by Sydney Water. Photo courtesy of the University of Newcastle.

A research team from the School of Engineering at the University of Newcastle (Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia) is developing drone technology that will help predict which underground water pipes are at risk of leaking or bursting due to corrosion.

These cast iron pipes are prone to corrosion due to factors such as age and the amount of moisture around them. Previously, investigators assessed the likelihood of a burst water pipe by knowing how old it was and by looking for obvious signs of degradation. Currently, sensor devices are deployed at specific sites to measure water flow that may be indicative of leaks or breaks.

The Newcastle team, which consists of associate professor In-Young Yeo and professor Rob Melchers, along with PhD student David Bretreger, are developing and testing a new remote sensing method known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that they believe will add to the leak detection “toolbox.”

“By attaching a device called a LiDAR to a drone we can accurately see where the lower lying areas are and, where land is not covered by buildings or concrete, we can also tell how wet the ground is,” says In-Young.

LiDAR uses a pulsed laser to measure ranges, or variable distances, to the Earth. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths are then used to make digital 3-D models of the landscape, including the amount of water in the ground. The Newcastle LiDAR investigation of soil moisture and corrosion is part of a larger “innovative smart water management project” coordinated by NSW Smart Sensing Network.

With its network of more than 22,000 km (13,670.2 mi) of water pipes, Sydney Water is leading the LiDAR project so that it can protect its assets. They have reportedly reduced annual water loss by about 30 billion liters thanks to current leak detection programs and by teaming up with Newcastle and other partners to develop technologies that can assess the condition of water supply networks. Along with water infrastructure, In-Young sees potential applications in monitoring wetlands and managing irrigation.

“Our research promises to inform corrosion assessments of aging infrastructure, allowing targeting of maintenance and replacements and preventing expensive and disruptive breaks and leaks,” says In-Young. “We know this technique works so we are now looking to increase the accuracy of wetness detection and we’re investigating automation to enable observation of even larger areas.”

Source: University of Newcastle,