Hundreds of previously unreported releases of raw sewage into UK rivers are detected due to AI, researchers say.
Experts tweet, “Software originally used to diagnose genetic disorders can detect sewage spills”.
Scientists identified 926 “spill events” from two wastewater treatment plants over 11 years by employing machine learning.
The UK Environment Agency said it had been “impressed by the accuracy” of the approach. “We welcome any tool that forestalls pollution,” the agency said.
The researchers, who published their study within the journal Clean Water, trained a computer algorithm to recognize, through the pattern of flow through a treatment plant, when a spill was happening. Algorithms are software-based instructions for solving a problem.
Prof Andrew Singer, of the United Kingdom Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), said the new approach was intended to determine an accurate measure of “how much under-reporting [of spills] might there be”. “We wanted to bring new technology to assist with transparency and enforcement around water quality,” he said.
The researchers spent years gathering data about flow rates in two treatment plants – teaching the algorithm to recognize the “shape of the flow” when a plant was operating normally and when it was spilling untreated wastewater.
“It builds up knowledge then you test it,” said Prof Singer. “You give it all the data and say, ‘can you find the spills’?”
Using 11 years of flow data from two plants, which the researchers didn’t identify in their study, the algorithm “recognized” 926 cases where untreated sewage was being released for at least three hours.
The researchers say that water companies around the UK could put a similar approach in place at any plant to detect “spills that appear to be going unnoticed and unreported”.
The Environment Agency agreed there were “good opportunities should water companies wish to consider the model as a planning tool to help manage pollution and prevent incidents from occurring”.
Christine Colvin, from the Rivers Trust charity, said: “Fixing the matter isn’t getting to be easy because it’s getting to require extensive investment in both old and new sewerage infrastructure and rethinking how we manage rainfall runoff in our towns and cities.
“However, we cannot afford the polluting impact on our waterways if we want to be able to use them safely for recreation, and if we want to enable a truly green recovery that brings back wildlife into our rivers.”