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Enlighten Me: Using kayaks, drones to map Delaware's coast for storm damage

Delaware is entering what is generally considered the height of the Atlantic hurricane season – where the state and the region are more likely to see major, damaging storms.

Recently, Delaware’s Broadkill Beach was the site of a week-long mapping project where scientists and industry professionals used autonomous kayaks and drones in an effort to improve tracking future storm damage along coastlines.

In this week’s Enlighten Me, Delaware Public Media Science Reporter Katie Peikes tells us more about their work.

If scientists want to understand how Delaware’s coasts respond to storms and sea level rise, they need high-resolution snapshots of what the shape of a beach, offshore and marshes are like right now - and use them as a baseline to measure storm effects.

That’s where coastal mapping - measuring the shape of the beach to the offshore with technology - comes in.

“The technological approaches to how we map and understand the environment are changing at such a rapid pace,” said Art Trembanis, a geology professor at the University of Delaware. “As scientists and engineers we need to try to keep up with that.”

Along with other industry professionals, scientists and engineers, Trembanis participated in a boot camp last week to map Delaware’s Broadkill Beach with infrared sensors, drones and autonomous kayaks.

Coastal mapping - measuring the shape of the beach to the offshore with technology.

The goal, he said, is to create baseline measurements that can be compared against what’s found in the same area following future storms.

"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,” Trembanis said. "That's really where we can get a sense of what changes [occur] to the environment."

January’s major snowstorm eroded portions of Broadkill Beach, with wave heights exceeding those during Hurricane Sandy. It cost millions of dollars to build the beach out again with six million cubic yards of sand. So Broadkill Beach was a good place to start a coastal mapping project, Trembanis said.

“In the distance we have an autonomous underwater vehicle – two of them actually. You can’t see (them) because they’re underwater,” Trembanis said. “They’re getting down below the surface and mapping using soundwaves to map the seafloor and we want to know everything we can about this.”

Scientists broke the mapping into three pieces: A variety of unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras covered the air.  The ocean’s surface was handled with autonomous surface vehicles, including kayaks and a remote controlled boat, or Z-boat. Autonomous underwater vehicles dove below the surface

“The new technology is not about abandoning the approaches that we’ve had using traditional surface ships or on-the-ground beach surveys is not going away,” Trembanis said. “We’re not trying to replace that, we’re just trying to augment that. We want to try to have this, what we call ‘force multiplication’ so that we can get out and cover more area simultaneously.”

Autonomous technology has efficiently cut down the time this work takes. Luis Rodriguez from the Naval Academy Oceanography Lab said researchers used to drive a small boat and dip a sensor into many areas of the water.

“And we couldn’t do that fast enough to be simultaneously in time with whatever the water is doing – the tidal cycle," 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.” 

Autonomous technology allows researchers to examine storm damage more rapidly.

The technology is expensive, costing several hundred to thousands of dollars, but Trembanis agreed it allows researchers to examine things more rapidly.

“We can move at the speed the environment changes and that is critical,” Trembanis said. “The same drones, kayaks…in the Delaware Bay — we can put up on a plane and take halfway around the world and suddenly do it there. They’re quicker, faster, more comprehensive and more portable.” 

The need to map the coast? Trembanis said 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 took to the sky to map the coast too — with drones

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

"It’s aerial reconnaissance and our system is tethered,” Ryan said. “So it provides an extra level of reliability when you have other people and drones moving around. So we define our perimeter and we stay there and we operate in a safe bubble.”

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

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

Following last week’s work, Trembanis said the next step is to 3D print the data.

"You can actually feel where there (are) bumps and ridges." - Art Trembanis, on 3D printing the data.

“So you can actually hold in your hand a part of the coastline," Trembanis said. "It’s scaled down but you can actually feel where there (are) bumps and ridges, where the dune is, you can tell where the beach has been built up and where it’s more eroded away. It’s actually a very strong way to sort of connect our senses to understanding the environment.”

The group also plans to map Bethany Beach this year, and Trembanis said this approach can be used up and down the Delaware coast and beyond.

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