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3 Things That Onsite Analysis & The Mars Rover Curiosity Have In Common

By May 10, 2017November 14th, 2019No Comments

What comes to mind when you think of the Mars Rover Curiosity? Do you wonder at the boundless innovation of mankind? Awe at the vastness of the cosmos? Or maybe, autonomous onsite analysis springs to mind! Here are 3 Things That Onsite Analysis & The Mars Rover Curiosity Have In Common 

If like us, you work in the environmental monitoring industry, then you’ll know that it has traditionally been geared towards spot monitoring methods of analyses. This is because traditionally most methods were sufficiently complex to necessitate laboratory-based infrastructure and traditional field-based monitoring systems were not designed to operate continuously in the field.

Now, imagine you’re testing on Mars. How practical would it be to send a sample to the lab or to deploy a field technician to take a reading with a handheld device? (Unless of course the technician was involved in the awesome ‘Mars One’ project, but then how would they get home? And just imagine the H&S risk assessment!? What about the quality of the data – would it be possible to keep samples stable on a return journey? And then the journey itself of course! Although the curiosity rover’s costs to deploy on-site may seem high currently at around $2.2m per day ($2.5b over 1127 days), they pale in comparison with the cost of sending a courier to bring the samples back to a lab for analysis.

Thankfully, the industry paradigm has changed. The use of continuous monitoring onsite analysis has 3 main advantages: Practicality, Quality of Data & Cost.

#1. Practicality

Access to real-time data allows rapid and reactive decision making. Whether this is the delineation of the boundaries of a contaminant for the purposes of remediation; the control of the reactions within an Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plant; the balancing of a landfill gas field or rapid decisions on the maintenance of key equipment. The ability to make on the spot decisions based on real-time data is invaluable and saves unnecessary wasting of time, money or other resources.

Often, environmental samples need to be taken from locations that are difficult/dangerous to access. Installation of remote monitoring systems in these locations makes huge sense in terms of minimising the manpower risks. (Just like the Mars project).

#2. Quality of Data

One of the antiquated notions about data gathered for onsite analysis is that it can never equal the quality of the results provided by off-site methods.

This is not the case; many of the process controls that are implemented within a laboratory setting can be utilised with remote monitoring systems. Be it method validations/demonstrations of method applicability (DMA), calibrations and the use of analytical quality controls through to training and monitoring.

In fact, many of these processes can be executed far more efficiently with continuous monitoring instruments by using computational and statistical algorithms easily carried out on large datasets with much greater sample densities in the cloud. It becomes a balance between the quality requirements of the end-user and the practicality of use.

For further reading: The Environment Agency produced a framework document in 2009 which outlines the use of onsite techniques for risk management of contaminated land.

The data produced on-site is highly representative of the environmental situation at the time of sampling, but this is dependent on the method being utilised and of course the persons performing the analysis.

By utilising autonomous systems that have been expertly installed and suitably monitored then the largest potential source of uncertainty of measurement (UoM) in the whole system can be removed. This is the UoM associated with human actuated sample taking.

#3. Cost

By utilising autonomous onsite analysis methods as an integrated part of the monitoring and management plan it is straightforward to reduce project costs.

These can be both

  • the direct monitoring costs, by reducing the number of visits to take samples for sending away for analysis or to recover data for instruments or change batteries, and
  • the indirect costs that can quickly mount up in the time between sampling and gaining the results.

The use of autonomous monitoring removes the costly aspect of regular sites visits to conduct: sampling, spot monitoring or data recovery and maintenance.

A word of caution, as with all things; onsite analysis is only as good as the techniques/instruments utilised and the operators that do them. However, when executed with suitable quality checks and procedures in place (including comparison with laboratory analysis via duplicate samples), autonomous onsite analysis gives the environmental operative a greatly increased arsenal of techniques to ensure that compliance is achieved and that processes are monitored and controlled to give optimal outcomes.

This combined with the greatly reduced costs and risks associated with site visits means that you have more money to build that Mars lander!