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A Drone in the Field

April 13, 2021 | Audrey-Maude Vézina

Update : April 13, 2021

INRS and DroneXperts will test a prototype drone during river sampling campaigns in the summer of 2021.

échantillonnage par drône
Photo : DroneXperts

Lake Saint-Charles, north of Quebec City, will become a playground for the Laboratory for Environmental Remote Sensing by Drone, led by Professor Karem Chokmani. In particular, the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) team will be testing the seventh prototype of a sampler-equipped drone. The sampling campaigns are conducted in partnership with conservation organization Agiro and DroneXperts, an expertise centre that professionalizes the integration of drones using robotics and artificial intelligence, particularly in the environmental technology sector in Canada and abroad.

Iterative improvements

Professor Chokmani began this project five years ago. “I quickly saw the potential and usefulness of the drone as a tool, particularly for monitoring water bodies that are difficult to access or have safety constraints,” says the remote sensing researcher. “This technology lets us go into areas that we may have had trouble accessing before.”

DroneXperts joined the project when the lab was on its fifth prototype. The company is contributing to fieldwork and working with the INRS on product development, particularly regarding equipment and expected features. “We are very pleased to be partners in this groundbreaking work. We are benefiting from the INRS’s expertise and resources while helping design the drone, right up to the commercialization stage,” says Patrick Chatelle, former student of Professor Chokmani and Director of Research and Development at DroneXperts.

échantillonnage par drône dans les lacs
Photo : DroneXperts

Tests conducted at Lake Saint-Charles in December 2020  were a success. Professor Chokmani’s team and DroneXperts decided to put their device to the test again, even more intensively. This summer, their plans include a sampling campaign to map water quality. In doing so, they hope to prove the drone’s capacity and usefulness in real-life conditions.

Tailoring optimization

These full-scale tests pose quite a challenge, especially in terms of adjusting and optimizing the drone. The device is already the first to be able to collect up to 3 litres of water in one flight, from 6 different points and depths. It is also equipped with pumping and washing systems that are activated between samples to prevent cross-contamination. The entire system is automated.

The team is now working on reducing the weight of the prototype to increase its flight time. The sampler currently weighs 6 kilograms when filled with 3 litres of water, but the lighter it is, the less energy it will need to fly. “We’re going to work on a lighter version, which will give us the option to add sensors for things like water pH, temperature, and turbidity,” stated Professor Chokmani.

Student members and mechanical engineering and robotics interns are helping to design the system and participating in ground and flight tests. Adjustments are made after each experiment. According to Professor Chokmani, this optimization process is possible thanks to 3D printing. “We’re able to make custom parts and do prototyping at the fraction of the cost that industrial companies charge. We aren’t afraid to test and adjust the prototype as needed. 3D printing really speeds up research, development, and innovation.”

The next optimization phase of the project, which will last three years, is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Mitacs. The team plans to make routine use of the prototype in Year 2 to fully understand its development potential and limitations. According to DroneXperts, the drone could be used for surface water and beach monitoring, as well as environmental (biological and physicochemical) monitoring. The company anticipates real success in commercializing this airborne technology. Many of its partners are already showing interest in this innovation. You could say it’s taking off!