Drone created by UT-Austin student aids campus water conservation

Gracie Awalt

If students see a drone flying through the sky around the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, it means UT is looking for ways to improve water conservation on campus.  

Electrical engineering junior Marwan Madi pitched his drone technology to UT, and now it’s flying around campus. As a high school student, Madi and his team won the National Innovation Merit Award for the drone in a competition that encourages students to address world issues through engineering. 

The drone uses special imaging technology to sense plant health. UT Landscape Services is in the process of gathering data about the lawn surrounding the LBJ Library, which uses 20 percent of the irrigation water on campus, said Markus Hogue, irrigation and water conservation coordinator for Landscape Services. 

“We weren’t sure of the best way to apply the technology on campus at first, but we knew we wanted to try something,” Madi said. “Water is a scarce resource, and I think a lot of people take it for granted.” 

Madi received funding through the Green Fund, a grant supported by tuition and fees, funds sustainability projects on campus. The grant paid for a $5,000 camera attached to a $2,000 drone. The camera takes images of the landscape and measures plant health based on how a plant reflects light.

Hogue said his goal is to determine the minimum amount of water they can use to irrigate the campus landscape without damaging the plants. Since 2009, the University has reduced water usage by 70 percent, or 125 million gallons, due to water conservation efforts led by UT Landscape Services. He said his goal is to save 10 percent more water, which equates to 4-5 million more gallons per year.  

“We want to start reducing the water usage on the healthy grass until it becomes noticeable,” Hogue said. “If I can run less water on the grass but people don’t notice it, that difference could mean a thousand gallons a watering cycle.”

Hogue said the recent Austin water boil notice serves as a reminder of how we use fresh drinking water to irrigate landscapes, and how we need to be “good stewards” and conserve what we can.

“If we could get more student groups to do this, just think of the impact it would have,” Hogue said. “Other countries would kill for fresh water, and if they knew we were just putting it out on the landscape to have green grass, could you imagine what they would be saying to us right now and how crazy they would think we are?”

Sustainability studies sophomore Susannah Cummins said we should not only focus on conserving water in times of crisis, such as the boil notice, but all the time. 

“Topics of environmental protection aren’t on the forefront of most people’s minds, which is unfortunate because it affects all of us,” Cummins said. “Everyone can make a difference, and everyone should be focusing on making a difference. We should try to minimize water usage on landscapes to the least amount possible because we should be conserving water in every aspect of our lives, and especially ones as trivial as lawns.”