discussion / Drones  / 14 March 2018

Drone Applications in Water Quality Research?

Hi everyone!

I am curious if anyone has come across water quality research using drones in wetted habitat, coastal ecosystems, rivers, lakes, or other riparian environments? I am specifically interested in water quality studies that use UAVs to capture information on oil spills, algal blooms, sedimentation, turbidity, or other water quality parameters. I understand that current limitations of mapping water, such as reflection or ripples, as well as water quality parameters (4 or 5-band multispectral cameras may not capture the wavelengths we need for an index such as the Floating Algal Index) might make this challenging at the moment. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you!

Chippie Kislik
UC Berkeley Graduate Student

Hi Chippie – I expect there is a lot you can do with a simple point and shoot RGB camera although mapping algal blooms would be easier with NDVI. For oil spills you might want to check out the Public Lab web site (https://publiclab.org) for some of the kite mapping work they did a few years ago during the Gulf oil spill. A simple point and shoot camera was all they used. That site also has links to DIY NDVI cameras in case that’s of interest.

As far as shooting over water a polarizing filter is helpful as is flying with the sun angle in mind when you do flight planning. The time of day and camera orientation will affect where or if sun glint appears on the photo. You can read up on the geometry of sun glint but spending a day or two flying over water is a good way to learn.

Sedimentation and turbidity monitoring is a bit more difficult. I suggest taking field measurements when you are flying the drone so you can create correlations between metrics you calculate from the imagery and what you measure in the field. The remote sensing literature has information about mapping turbidity than could be tried using a UAV and simple cameras. Since you’re at Berkeley you might try to get in touch with Ved Chirayath at NASA Ames. He’s doing some really interesting work with fluid lensing to remove distortions inherent when imaging over water. It’s usually used to improve viability of underwater features but maybe it could also be used to normalize the water signature and improve turbidity measurements.


Hi CHippie - I am wondering how your thoughts are progressing on this topic? Please let us know an update.




Hi Michael! 

Thanks so much for following up. I have yet to really get my feet wet with drones & algal blooms (my water quality issue of interest at the moment), but what I gathered from my literature review is that hyperspectral cameras are a much more precise option than multispectral cameras for algal identification. I'm hoping to try out a red-edge camera to see if there is anything spectrally interesting, as I do not currently have access to a hyperspectral camera. For the time being, I am hoping to play with a MicaSense camera over wet habitat and see if anything can be observed. I'll keep you posted if I find anything of interest!