Spectrometry Take Flight

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by Stephanie Sutton for TheAnalyticalScientist.com

Aerial drones already aid in sample collection. Is in-situ water analysis next?

How do you collect water samples in remote areas with no infrastructure? You fly… Or rather, an unmanned aerial drone does. Such drones – equipped with pumps – are already being used to suck up water samples at various locations for subsequent laboratory analysis. Now, president and founder of PrecisionHawk Ernest Earon says that the company is looking to incorporate an onboard spectrometer for in-situ analysis.

“We have already integrated 15 different plug and play sensors from visual to hyperspectral to Lidar,” says Earon, “but technology is now minuturizing and reducing in cost so quickly that it’s more about keeping up with new techology rather than whether it is possible… Because it is possible. We just need to learn how to integrate new techologies into existing systems.”

The drones weigh around 1.3 kg, are less than one metre from nose to tail, and are able to compute flight paths (automatically adapting for bad weather), survey parameters, take-off and landing paths, as well as other vital information. Once the survey is complete, the on-board computers connect to wireless networks to transfer the high resolution remote sensing data, flight information and diagnostics to remote servers. Sounds futuristic? Actually, they are already being used in a variety of practical applications. Agriculture is a big one, according to Earon.“For crop health, we can look for crop stressors in specific spectral bands or use thermal sensors to identify temperature variations caused by crop stress. Access to real-time data allows for a more informed approach.”

Assessing water quality has become another popular area for the company, largely driven by industry demands; for example, to evaluate organic material in the water or identify oil spills and pollutants. “The technology was made to cover large areas, very quickly – and in difficult locations,” says Earon. “For example, up north, where there is little to no infrastructure, you’re going through areas where it is almost impossible to walk… let alone carry sampling equipment. The intention was to serve as a people multiplier, to extend the reach and vision and to touch things we have been previously unable to touch.”

And the inclusion of an onboard spectrometer? Earon says that the system will obviously need to be light and high quality, but there is a growing market. “The next step for us is to evaluate which applications would be well suited for an onboard based spectrometer. There are so many potential applications for a technology like this, so we need to understand where the biggest needs are and where the most rapid rollout can be.”