Artificial Intelligence Helping To Detect Sewage Leaks
Scientists have been using artificial intelligence and machine learning over a period of 11 years to help detect hundreds of previously unreported incidents of raw sewage being released into rivers around the UK, identifying 926 spill events from two wastewater treatment plants during that time.
The research, carried out by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), used a computer algorithm to recognise when a spill was taking place by analysing the pattern of flow through a treatment plant, the BBC reports.
Professor Peter Hammond, lead author of the study, explained that they used a pattern recognition algorithm originally developed for medical genetics, saying: “Previously, I was using machine learning to detect subtle differences in the shape of children’s faces to help diagnose certain genetic conditions.
“Instead of mapping the 3D shape of a face, here we have the shape of the flow through a wastewater treatment works.”
It’s possible that water companies around the UK could implement similar approaches in their plants to detect spills that could potentially be going both unnoticed and unreported.
Professor Andrew Singer, also of the UKCEH, made further comments, saying: “I have spent my career understanding the effects of pollution on our environment and to remedy the problems, or at least, understanding better to inform people who make decisions. And we need to sort out the raw sewage problem that we have in the UK.”
Currently, wastewater treatment plants are allowed to release untreated sewage into rivers during exceptional rainfall events. Storm tanks can become overwhelmed with rainwater and untreated wastewater overflows, ending up in waterways, but the frequency of these overflows has been concerning environmental scientists and campaigners.
Christine Colvin from the Rivers Trust charity said that it will not be easy to find a solution to the problem, because significant investment will be required in sewerage infrastructure, as well as thinking again about how rainfall runoff can be managed in urban settings.
Earlier this month (March), it was revealed that supplier Thames Water was fined £2.3 million over failures to address faulty equipment at one of its sewage treatment plants, which led to a stream being polluted with sewage and 1,144 fish killed, as a result.
It was found that the treatment works at Henley in Oxfordshire didn’t have any monitoring in place to manage pollution risks, exacerbated by the fact that staff members on sites failed to respond to alarms revealing issues in the process.
And late last year, it was reported that water supplier Southern Water was hit with a record £126 million fine for spilling wastewater from its sewage plants into the natural environment. The Environment Agency has since launched a criminal investigation into the company’s actions, with regulatory body Ofwat also criticising it for misreporting its performance.
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