How an Accidental Drone Flight Became an Integral Part of Protecting the Great Barrier Reef

AIMS is using Drone Technology to Protect Coral Reef Flats and Fight Climate Change

As a result of climate change, thermal stress on our oceans has resulted in mass-bleaching events never before seen at this scale. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, these influxes of prolonged warmer temperatures have affected over 75% of coral reefs globally. In 2016 alone, 22% of the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest living organism, was killed. After-effects of these disasters are even more shocking - without thriving coral reefs, 500 million people worldwide would lose their livelihood. The reefs account for billions of dollars in economic value while also protecting coastal areas from floods and erosion.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science ("AIMS"), has been monitoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef since the 1980s, and is dedicated to conserving Australia's tropical marine life. Coral bleaching is just one aspect of what AIMS studies, as they have been monitoring the reef many years before mass coral bleaching started in the late 1990s. Because of the complex challenges they now face, technological innovation is at the forefront of their methods. Jonathan Kok, a Technology Transformation Researcher within the organization and our interviewee, develops algorithms, writes code, and programs smart systems to best assist field and science teams. Given the size and scale of the Great Barrier Reef (over 3,000 reefs in an area larger than Italy) AIMS is looking to new technologies to allow it to collect high-quality data at a scale that matches the reef, and is within the resources of AIMS as a government not-for-profit agency. As a result, AIMS began trialing various drone technology to supplement traditional surveying methods in 2014.

Drone imagery is used to track coral health along the reef.

An Accidental Start

While drone technology is now an essential part of AIMS' standard operating procedures, it first began as an experiment, fueled by an individual drone enthusiast's curiosity. At first, a Communications Lead worked with AIMS' Chief Pilot, Joe Gioffre, to capture promotional images with a GoPro mounted onto a drone. Seeing the potential for serious data capture, another Technology Transformation Lead used the drone to take images of mangroves. After beginning a free trial with us in 2015, the same lead chose to invest in DroneDeploy for its ease-of-use, flight waypoints, and data processing support - an all-in-one package.

Soon after, AIMS began conducting more and more drone flights to cover vast expanses of coral reefs along both the east and western coasts of Northern Australia. This imagery is primarily used to track the coral's health and elevation information, which identified how it responded to various environmental stressors. With this high-resolution data to consult, researchers are now able to pinpoint which species of coral are growing well or being bleached – and at what locations.

A section of AIMS' orthomosaic map of the Great Barrier Reef.

Today's Projects and Solutions

The agency uses DroneDeploy on a myriad of projects. These include surveying lagoons, monitoring the effects of building projects (roof leaks, solar inspections), performing equipment inspections (vessels, weather stations, wharves, anchors), and, of course, imaging coral reefs. Before drones were available as an accessible technology, AIMS was spending days manually inspecting assets and large structures. DroneDeploy allows the organization to get more data for less money and add detail to sea operations.

One such project that has been expedited is mapping coral reef flats. Using DroneDeploy's stitching, these surveys and elevation maps can be completed in just 20 minutes - saving hundreds of hours of time and cataloging these images for future reference. Pre-mapping before a mission allows workers to understand the terrain before deploying expensive equipment or human snorkelers/divers. A typical multi-beam system survey of a reef costs over AUD 500,000 (357,500 USD) for setup, operations, and data analysis. In some cases, when the water is shallow and clear, this system doesn't even have to be utilized, and a drone can take its place. Especially shallow areas are often not accessible by divers, so knowing what's happening in the selected reef site is an added bonus.

AIMS hopes to make manual inspections of solar panels obsolete.

To date, drone technology has saved AIMS countless time and money with automated, quick inspections, and reliable data capture. Instead of working on imagery-stitch coding, users can import their findings directly into the DroneDeploy app. Using expensive equipment isn't always necessary, and new insights can be gained from a fresh, bird's-eye view. This is also safer for divers and other individuals performing physical inspections.

Looking ahead, AIMS is excited to begin using thermal mapping capabilities to further their conservation efforts, in addition to replacing manual inspections of solar panels. One day, AIMS hopes drones may autonomously fly reefs and come back with the necessary data. Until then, they’ll be continuing their mission of providing research of Australia’s marine life to support growth, effective environmental management, and protection of its unique ecosystems.

Drones, and drone software such as DroneDeploy, are becoming a vital tool that AIMS uses to better map, monitor, and understand the reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef. The ability to deliver up-to-date base maps at a centimeter scale opens up new possibilities for understanding how reefs change and what is driving this change. The goal is to have base maps of many of the reefs within the Great Barrier Reef and to be able to understand at regional scales the health and sustainability of these vital systems. With technology like drones and DroneDeploy, this goal is now within reach.

If you’re interested in learning more about drones in conservation, check out our Drones for Good program, or read some of our other customer success stories. For a general overview, download our State of the Drone Market 2020 Report.


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