Drones used to test water quality at Auckland’s most popular beaches

Water quality testing at popular swimming beaches has been taken to new heights thanks to the use of drones.

Reporting for work officially for the first time on Thursday, a drone began collecting water quality samples at Takapuna Beach, on Auckland’s North Shore on behalf of Auckland Council.

Seagulls rallied as the unmanned aerial vehicle buzzed to life, whizzed about 200m offshore and lowered a sample bag into the blue. It whizzed back and its contents were dropped into a jar for lab analysis.

Drones will now be used to test water quality at various Auckland beaches.
RYAN ANDERSON/STUFF
Drones will now be used to test water quality at various Auckland beaches.

The new sampling initiative replaced previously-used alternatives, such as sending a helicopter out, rubber dinghies or wading out on foot.

While still in its infancy, the drone program will initially be used to test water quality at beaches with regular organised swim events.

The drones can collect samples as far out as 1km offshore.
RYAN ANDERSON/STUFF
The drones can collect samples as far out as 1km offshore.

These inlcude Mission Bay, Kohimarama, St Heliers, Takapuna, Narrowneck and Milford. But Auckland Council is open to expanding the program to more beaches in the coming years if its successful.

Despite costing ratepayers $10,000 per beach per year, the new method is said to be about 30 per cent more cost effective than traditional testing methods.

Speaking from the beach on Thursday, Mayor Phil Goff commended the initiative.

Water is tested for bugs that cause sickness in humans.
RYAN ANDERSON/STUFF
Water is tested for bugs that cause sickness in humans.

“We in the past have used helicopters, which is incredibly expensive. But even getting boats out is harder and time consuming.”

As a recreational swimmer himself, Goff said it was a move forward in terms of ensuring Auckland beaches are swimmable and safe.

“Heading to the beach to enjoy the summer is part of our birth right as Aucklanders.

“This makes a lot of sense, this is just the next step in making [water testing] more effective, safer to do and more economic.”

The drones will be operated by environmental and engineering firm Pattle Delamore Partners (PDP), which also developed the methodology behind the sampling process. Samples are collected at various intervals up to 1km offshore.

The samples are taken from the drone and taken to a lab for processing.
RYAN ANDERSON/STUFF
The samples are taken from the drone and taken to a lab for processing.

Results are then fed in to the Auckland Council-run Safeswim’s water quality monitoring system, available on its website.

Safeswim boss Nick Vigar said the program was “probably of the order of $10,0000 a beach for a years’ worth of data”.

He admitted it was an investment – but said it was a worthy cause, because people get sick swimming at beaches with bad quality water.

“Most of the things you’re going to get sick with is a stomach upset or cold or flu symptoms and quite often people don’t associate that with swimming.

“You might have been swimming a week ago before the incubation period is over.”

He said the highest risk was in the shallowest waters – “which is where kids play”.

“We know that risk drops off when you get into deeper water so this is about putting some numbers on it and getting some certainty.”

He said it would give beachgoers an indication when the shallow water was becoming high risk in terms of public health, but also gives swimmers an indication as to where is best place to train and compete also.

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