Detweiler, Elbaum lead project to build water-sampling drone

Carrick Detweiler (left) and Sebastian Elbaum hold a prototype of the water sample-collecting drone they are building. (Troy Fedderson | University Communications)
Carrick Detweiler (left) and Sebastian Elbaum hold a prototype of the water sample-collecting drone they are building. (Troy Fedderson | University Communications)

UNL scientists are leading a national research project to develop unmanned aerial vehicles that collect water samples from lakes, streams and ponds.

The project — led by UNL's Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum, professors of computer science and engineering — has been awarded a $956,210 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The award for the three-year, "Co-Aerial Ecologist: Robotic Water Sampling and Sensing in the Wild" project is part of the National Robotics Initiative, a collaboration between the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

The multidisciplinary collaboration includes researchers in UNL's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and College of Journalism and Mass Communications, as well as the University of California, Berkeley. A fourth partner, NET, Nebraska's public broadcasting service, will produce outreach components.

"Water is a critical resource but scientists often cannot sample an area of study often enough or soon enough after a major rainfall or related event," Detweiler said. "Our basic idea is to create a UAV that can be located near a study area, can fly out over the body of water as needed, dip a hose down to a certain depth and pump samples into a collection reservoir."

Use of a UAV would also help with logistical issues related to collecting water samples.

"Normally, a water scientist must haul equipment, boats and people to collect samples," said Elbaum. "With this type of collection vehicle, you could bring it to a test area and collect samples quickly with just a few people."

Amy Burgin, an assistant professor with UNL's School of Natural Resources and water scientist working on the UAV project, said the drones could open new opportunities in water study.

"We want to be able to send this drone to places that humans can't necessarily get to," Burgin said. "That could open up really interesting research opportunities in getting to some remote locations."

Burgin leads a water-sampling project in lakes near Fremont, Neb.

Working with the research team, Detweiler and Elbaum have already developed a UAV that can successfully collect three 20-milliliter water samples. In the next year, they will use the USDA grant to focus on developing key algorithms to improve the safety and reliability of the water sampler.

"This project presents a lot of interesting challenges," said Elbaum. "The overall situation is risky as you have an electronic device flying over water and close to a scientist. We don't want it crashing into the water or a person."

The water-collecting prototypes cost about $5,000 each. Detweiler said a project goal is to offer scientists a less-expensive model.

The research effort will focus on developing UAV systems that offer the right level of autonomy and reliability without compromising safety. Ultimately, the researchers hope to make the UAVs autonomous, with scientists programming in global positioning data and letting the drone go collect samples.

"And, within three to four years, we hope that these devices will be able to do onboard analysis," Elbaum said. "That would allow them to throw away samples that are no good or do not contain anything interesting."

Sample reliability is also an important component of the project. Burgin is overseeing the testing of water samples collected by the drone, comparing the results against human-taken samples.

Elbaum said testing of the UAVs would continue inside UNL's Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Lab. The team is also applying for authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in test sites relevant to the grant.

Additional members of the research team include Matt Waite, a professor of practice and director of UNL's Drone Journalism Lab; Michael Hamilton, co-director of UC-Berkeley's Blue Oak Ranch Reserve; and Sally Thompson, an assistant professor in surface water hydrology at UC-Berkeley.

The goal of the NIMBUS Lab is to build more capable and dependable UAVs. To achieve that goal, NIMBUS research is focused on the latest research and technology in software and systems engineering, robotics and sensor networks. The lab is funded in part through grants from the Air Force Office Scientific Research, National Science Foundation and UNL.

Established by Elbaum and Detweiler, the NIMBUS lab includes research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.

The lab also works closely with UNL's ESQuaRed, a software quality research and development lab, and the Cyber-Physical Networking Lab, which focuses on building next-generation wireless sensor networks and wireless communications.

For more information about UAV research at UNL, go to" target="_blank"> A video of a water-sampling drone prototype is available at

— Troy Fedderson, University Communications