Plane flying over farm land © Anglian Water/APEM

A water company is using “spy in the sky” technology to identify farms that pollute beaches and coastal waters.

Anglian Water has been flying high-tech “spotter” planes along the Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire coastline to target sources of pollution, which can damage rivers, estuaries and the sea.

The light aircraft has taken hundreds of highly detailed photographs – including some taken at night using thermal-infrared imaging – to pinpoint the source of any pollution problems, and the routes it takes to get to the sea.

The initiative is one of a number of projects that Anglian Water is pioneering to protect the coast’s bathing waters, beaches and tourist economies.

See also: Farmers face water pollution clampdown

The company said 91% of bathing waters in the eastern region were classed as good or excellent, but the aerial work would ensure it moved closer to its goal of 100% excellent.

Lucinda Gilfoyle, who leads Anglian Water’s coastal strategy, said: “We’ve spent more than £300m fixing issues that were previously affecting bathing water quality, dealing with some significant problems.

“What remains are smaller and harder to pinpoint sources of pollution – things that it’s easy to overlook, or simply not see, if you’re on the ground.”

Potential sources of pollution the team expect to document include slurry from farms, animal waste from fields washing into watercourses, sediment disturbed through river dredging, fouling from roosting sea birds, trade waste and and poorly maintained private cesspits or privately owned sewerage systems.

Dr Gilfoyle said: “Although each pollution source may seem negligible, when combined they can have a devastating impact on water quality.

“A lot of these potential contamination sources will have nothing to do with Anglian Water, but we see it as our responsibility to collaborate with coastal communities to help them address anything that poses a risk to water quality, and the wider economy that might depend on good, clean seas.”

Anglian Water has brought in experts APEM to carryout the the aerial surveys.

APEM director Stuart Clough said: “Unlike teams on the ground, our survey aircraft cover hundreds of square miles in a day, while the onboard cameras take thousands of ultra-high resolution images.

“Our expert image analysts will then pick out the telltale signs of pollution and pinpoint the location to allow Anglian Water to work with the necessary third parties to deal with the problem in the best way.”