It may look like a discarded piece of plumbing or a message in a bottle bobbing about aimlessly in the river, but Queensland University of Technology's humble "Drifter" hides some serious kit with a lifesaving mission for flood-prone regions.

Developed by Queensland University of Technology's (QUT) mechanical engineers Professor Richard Brown and Dr Kabir Suara, and satellite engineers Professor Yanming Feng and Dr Charles Wang, the Drifters deliver real-time water quality and velocity data and will act as early warning devices against flash floods, pollution run-off, and algal blooms.

Housed in a humble PVC pipe casing, the unimposing Drifter is the product of years of research, inspired by the 2011 Brisbane floods which were inundating parts of the university grounds. The QUT scientists wanted to measure how dangerous the flow was, so they cobbled together a device, threw it into the churning floodwaters and began collecting data. This was the lightbulb moment for the Drifter program.

"Before this breakthrough, we didn't know what was happening to water quality and flow in real-time," Professor Brown said. "The Drifters make it possible to get vital information on river waters as it happens."

While government agencies have deployed around 400 flood monitoring devices around the state, their usefulness in an emergency is limited due to their fixed locations. In contrast, the portable and cheap Drifter units could be rapidly deployed by hand or dropped from a helicopter with real-time data captured via Bluetooth, wireless comms or integrated SIM cards. These are no one-trick water-ponies though, as the team has shown the devices could easily be used to investigate land-use changes such as agricultural practices and waste disposal.

"Each Drifter is equipped with GPS so that we can track its location," said Brown. "They are specially weighted so they float only 1 to 2 cm above the water's surface to ensure they are carried by the water and not the wind."

Tests to date have shown high-resolution data on location, velocity and flow or fluxes of sediments and pollutants. GPS data from the Drifters has also been shown to be sensitive to height which makes it a powerful tool for flood monitoring and emergency response planning.

Field trials are underway with the Sunshine Coast Council at Lake Currimundi and Pumicestone Passage where the QUT team is testing floating and fixed Drifters for their ability to measure water pH, turbidity, salinity, dissolved oxygen and temperature.

Drifters currently cost between AUD 100 and AUD 1,000 to make by hand – depending on the sensor payload – but they could be up to 10 times cheaper if produced in commercial quantities.

The video below has more on the project.

Source: QUT

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