Northumbrian Water changing the game with inspection drones

Last updated on

September 8, 2020


Northumbrian Water: Using inspection drones to enhance reservoir safety inspections and provide resilience to water supplies

In today’s game, the phrase “world-class” get’s thrown around too easily.  In the case of Northumbrian Water, Greg Barrett and their use of inspection drones, it may be justified.

We know what you’re thinking, what the hell has this got to do with drones being used for inspection and our water supplies?

Let us explain.

World-class players change the game, mostly by doing things we haven’t seen before, or just by doing things better.  Severn Trent Water are in that category. And now, Northumbrian Water are joining them.

Essex & Suffolk Water – which is part of the Northumbrian Water Group – operate in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Greater London with one mission.  To provide clean, great tasting tap water to over 1.8 million customers every single second of every single day.

In order to do this safely, regular inspections must be carried out to ensure the integrity of its Dams and Reservoirs.  With Covid-19 providing challenges around social distancing when working in confined spaces, the company started to look at drones as an innovative tool to overcome this challenge and to enhance the safety of these critical inspections.

In our latest interview,  Greg Barrett, Project Engineer for Essex & Suffolk Water tells us how he first started to use drones for inspections and the benefits he has seen since adoption into his operations.

In his words…

“I would now class the traditional way of doing it as quite archaic when compared to the data set we achieved by drone. This way of conducting inspections is definitely part of the 21st century way of doing things and we hope this new approach is set to become the industry standard, as it’s given us a fantastic new insight that we’ve never had before.”



Here’s Essex & Suffolk Water’s journey to world-class in the words of Greg Garrett.


How did you first come across the idea of using drones for inspections?

“In 2019, we attended a Drone Demonstration Day with Coptrz and that’s when first came across the ELIOS 2 confined space inspection drone.

Over the following months, we decided to invest in drone training – so we had an internal team that could safely operate drones for various applications such as time lapse footage of large projects.

It wasn’t until Covid hit that we were forced to really think about how we could adapt our inspections to make them safer for our workforce, that’s when we started looking at the ELIOS 2.”

Coptrz Drone Demo Day 2020

Okay, you’ve decided the ELIOS 2 is the drone to support your operations, how have you been using it?

“We have a number of reservoirs that have shafts that go right down to the bottom near the dam walls and these need to be inspected regularly to make sure there are no leaks and continue to be structurally integral.

The problem was to do that type of entry, you’re going 20 metres down below ground level with very tight access in places. Usually, we conduct these inspections in person but with challenges of socially distancing with Covid-19 – it just wasn’t possible to do this in person with multiple people. However, we had a legal duty to inspect these structures safely, so we sourced the lightweight ELIOS 2 drone to undertake the two programmed reservoir inspections.

We used the ELIOS to assess the dams, underground pipework and the buildings deep below the surface of the water.

Using the ELIOS 2 has been a real game-changer for us. The drone is specifically designed for confined spaces in dark, cold environments. Using the high-powered lights and thermal sensors, we were able to easily detect any structural cracks or issues and inspect places more difficult to access. For example, we managed to get extremely close to the screen meshes to inspect them in situ.  This was because of the way the ladders are positioned, but the ELIOS allowed us to get up close and personal and capture clear images of these for the first time, without having to remove them. The quality of the data means we can make strategic decisions with more confidence following on from what we have assessed.

Our inspections come under an act of parliament and must be certified by a member of the British Dams Association. So, we initially conducted the inspection and fed the information back to the inspectors.  The feedback we’ve had on the data captured has been great.

It’s brilliant to be able to have a clear log and record of data that we can go back and assess whenever we need to do so for condition management for years’ to come.”

Elios 2 in a tunnel


What benefits are you seeing using drones for inspections?

“Everyone in the business sees the benefits of using drones from a different perspective. For me, my main priority is making sure our Dams, Reservoirs and Waters Towers are as safe as they can possibly be.

Drones will never replace boots on the ground because sometimes you need to get up close and personal, however, it’s about the regular assessment of assets and reducing the number of physical inspections you have to do.

Despite having strict health and safety measures in place, reservoirs can still be hazardous so if we can reduce the number of times we need to carry out these physical inspections then that’s great”.

3D Map using Elios 2 data and Pix4Dmapper

A 3D map created using ELIOS 2 data and Pix4Dmapper

How important is it for you to have this historical data of your assets?

“It’s fantastic to have the ability to go back and interrogate the data. For example, I could go back in time, look at the bolt that’s holding a structure in place and I can actually see the condition of it. This gives me real certainty in what I’m looking at and the confidence to assess the quality of the structure. When did those cracks first appears? Have they developed over time?

Having this data gives us the power to assess and plan repairs in before they become a problem. The data log is also great for audit purposes and makes a good record log too for what’s been going on.”

How were you conducting inspections before you started using drone technology?

 “Normally, we would conduct the inspection manually which would be quite expensive and also time-consuming. Generally speaking, this process would also result in a line drawing for us to assess from, however, since using drones we are now able to work from a 3D model. The end result is a lot more tangible and our Project Engineers can actually design from the data captured by the drone.

I would now class the traditional way of doing it as quite archaic when compared to the data set we achieved by drone. This way of conducting inspections is definitely part of the 21st century way of doing things and we hope this new approach is set to become the industry standard, as it’s given us a fantastic new insight that we’ve never had before.”


Check out this video footage supplied by Northumbria Water of one of their Valve Chamber Inspection


What future projects do you have planned using drones?

“We’re going through a big transformation at the moment and the plan is to use drones to create a digital twin of the business – both underground and above ground. The idea is we want to be able to integrate the digital twin into our management system and actually have a live data feed plugged into it.

“We have a treatment plant in the North-East that we’ve 3D mapped with drones and what we’ve managed to do is actually asset-tag part of it by working with Microsoft. The idea is that we tag each of the assets with information and push this onto our virtual portal. For example, if we had a failure with a operational pump then we know where it is, so from a planning point of view it means that we know the location of the fault, if powered access was required, what type of vehicle we would need to get on site and therefore streamlining the process to be even more efficient.

“Another benefit is for us often it’s quite hard to show key stakeholders what we are trying to achieve when building a new structure. Since having the 3D model we can actually show them exactly what we are designing so that key stakeholders and asset managers are able to better understand what we are proposing. We’ve found that this has increased efficiency of our projects and become another benefit to having a 3D model.”

Northumbria Water also use their drones for site progress reports, check out this footage filmed


How will having this Digital Twin save on costs and improve overall business efficiency?

“At the moment our Asset Owners know what they are expecting when there are faults or repairs that need doing but we have to think about protecting the safety of our assets long term. In a few years’ time for example, we’ll have different Electricians, Fitters and Asset owners so if we have all the information on our Assets stored in a system anyone can access this at any time.”

Elios 2 drone

Other than inspections how else are you using drones in the business?

“We did one project where we actually used the drone to take time-lapse photos. It was quite a big project within the local community which spanned over the course of a year. The project was so quick it in fact, won an award and the drone time lapse footage provided a good visual memory to celebrate the end of the project with the community.”

How have stakeholders and suppliers reacted to using the drone for inspections?

“One of our engineering partners said that the way we were conducting the inspection by drone should be ‘best practice industry-wide’.

A few people in the business started off by questioning,  ‘Do we really need drones?’, and after seeing the data captured have made a complete 360 to, ‘Why have we never done this before?’  This is great to hear”

That’s a wrap.

We brought the interview to a close at this point, but it goes without saying that we’re in awe of how much Greg has managed to achieve with drones in such a short space of time.

At Coptrz, we know that drones will make your operations faster, safer and more cost-effective.  Hell, we say it enough.  But, we’re now at the stage where enough organisations have adopted the technology and are starting to reap the benefits of it.

If you’re one of the organisations that’s still to embrace the technology, then we’re your UK Business Partner to get you up and running.  If you want to speak to George Burne, the UK’s leading expert on drones for inspection, then visit our Drones for Inspection content hub where you can get in touch for a 30 minute call.

It could be the most profitable 30 minutes of your working week.

Elios 2 - in the box

What next?

If you’d like to find out more about the ELIOS 2 then check out the links below:

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