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Aerial drones and kayaks: Using autonomous technology to map Delaware's coast

Delaware’s Broadkill Beach is the site of a week-long mapping project where scientists and industry professionals are using autonomous kayaks and drones to better track storm damage along coastlines.

Scientists, engineers and industry professionals are mapping Delaware’s Broadkill Beach with infrared sensors to get baseline measurements of the environment to compare to any potential storm damage in the future.

"This provides kind of a really useful natural laboratory for us to get a sense of if we can get a snapshot of what this beach is like now, then we can reference it and look at differences," said Art Trembanis, a University of Delaware geology professor. "That's really where we can get a sense of what changes [occur] to the environment."

When Snowstorm Jonas hit the Delaware coast last winter, it eroded portions of the beach and exceeded the wave heights of Hurricane Sandy.  Millions of dollars were then poured into building Broadkill Beach out with six million cubic yards of sand.

That’s why Trembanis says there’s a need to map the coast, and with autonomous kayaks, it can be done quickly.

"If you were out here in January when we were in winter storm Jonas or any of the Nor'easters we had, the Mother's Day storm in 2009, you would see tumultuous sea conditions and erosive waves and winds," Trembanis said.

In mapping areas after snowstorms like Jonas, autonomous technology has been able to efficiently cut down the amount of time the process used to take, said Luis Rodriguez from the Naval Academy Oceanography Lab.

"Before, I guess, you’d either have to go on a small boat and then at every position,  dip the sensor on the water and bring it out, move to another position, dip it on the water, and we couldn’t do that fast enough," said Rodriguez. "So this will do it a lot faster so that we could see in one tidal cycle , more of a wider range of area."Researchers are also taking to the sky to map the coast — flying drones over nearby marshes and on the beach itself. 

Trembanis says the technology can also have broader implications in discovering more about the depths of our own oceans.

Scientists have more information about the moon and Mars than they do about the Earth’s bodies of water, which compose the majority of the Earth’s biosphere.

Researchers are also taking to the sky to map the coast — flying drones over nearby marshes and on the beach itself.

Credit Katie Peikes / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Mark Ryan, from Ryan Media Lab, said drones have the capability to produce high-end sensing photos at high altitudes.


Mark Ryan, the CEO of Ryan Media Lab, a drone manufacturing company, captured photos of the landscape from the air.

"So when [Trembanis] puts together his narrative, he’s got our shots to show people where things occur, where people navigated and where the tests occurred," Ryan said.

Ryan says drones can safely map these types of areas from several vantage points without putting people at risk of injury.

Researchers are mapping Broadkill Beach throughout the week. Trembanis says after they’re done, they will create a first of its kind 3D printed map, which will serve as a template for future projects.

"We'll be able to print what the surface is like and it's a very powerful way to see and literally feel with our hands what the beach and the [ecosystem] looks like,” Trembanis said.

Over the course of this year, UD scientists will map Broadkill Beach and Bethany Beach, but the approach and concept are applicable to all of the Delaware coastline, Trembanis said.

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