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Coastal Surveying and Environmental Monitoring with Drones

Enhancing Coastal Surveying and Environmental Monitoring with Drones

07Jun2023

A Q&A with Coastal Partners – A Coastal Surveying firm

Coastal Partners, an organisation focused on coastal surveying and asset management, successfully implemented drone technology into their working practices. By harnessing the power of drones, they significantly improved their ability to monitor coastal erosion and project progress, resulting in enhanced efficiency, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness.

How did they do it? We take a deep dive in this Q&A to reveal all. 

Why did you start using drones for coastal surveying?

As an organisation that undertakes a substantial amount of topographic surveying and asset management along the coast, we are always looking for more efficient ways of working. In 2018, we decided to make the jump and purchase a DJI Inspire 2 and AgEagle eBee X which allowed us to fuse traditional survey methods with Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) technology to help us obtain accurate and efficient data collection for large areas of our coastline. We use drones as part of our Coastal Management projects and to better understand coastal processes across our varied coastline.

Within our Major Projects team, we manage multi-million-pound construction schemes where we undertake project and contract management as well as site supervision of all works. We traditionally relied on the use of mobile phone photos for our records, which was data heavy and difficult to identify parts of the site they were taken from. We started flying the Inspire 2 in 2018, and aside from the obvious benefits provided, such as amazing aerial imagery, the RPAS have allowed us to undertake mapping missions, creating 3D models that can be used to obtain key levels in areas of the site we’d not ordinarily be able to reach. The outputs can be shared with stakeholders and have proven a real benefit in engagement events.

How do you use drones to monitor coastal erosion?

We’ve begun using drones as part of the Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme, a national scheme that involves measuring the height and material across coastal frontages. The horizontal mapping functions of the drones are essential in our effort to monitor coastal erosion as these provide RTK-positioned aerial photographs which can be used to generate a variety of outputs, from DSMs and DTMs, to 3D point cloud models. From these, we can directly compare levels of material on the coastal frontages, as well as draw cross sections at particular points of interest. The drones assist us in understanding short and long-term trends of coastal processes and the natural evolution of the coastline.

Prior to the implementation of RPAS, beach recycling crest elevation data for pre and post-work surveys were walked on foot. RPAS have reduced the time to collect data, lowering costs. These are then processed in PIX4D before using additional software (ArcGIS Pro) to generate DTMs. Pre and post-works DTMs are compared to analyse changes in beach volumes along the frontage which are then divided into groyne bays for the contractors to use as a guide during the beach recycling works, replenishing the beach to its ‘Design Profile’ to protect coastal homes and businesses from storm events.

We’ve been making use of our newly purchased DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise RTK drone on the North Portsea Island Coastal Defence Scheme. We constructed a roost island to encourage birds to nest throughout the year. As the structure has been built on soft foreshore material, using the Mavic has allowed us to monitor the construction safely without the need to walk close to a moving plant or walk across the mudflat. 

coastal surveying with drones

How has the use of drones improved your ability to monitor coastal erosion and project progress compared to traditional methods?

Drones are a far more efficient and effective method of surveying. They allow large areas to be surveyed quickly and at an accurate level of detail, particularly when paired with GCPs or Check Points. When compared to previous data collected by hand, the data matches up well in terms of accuracy, but means there is less time spent on site and the data collected can be processed quickly and passed on to our research team for analysis.

Aerial surveys are undertaken for Regional Monitoring and high-frequency long-period monitoring of beach erosion hotspots where defence works have or will be undertaken which has the likelihood of impacting the shoreline position. Using the AgEagle eBee (fitted with the Aeria X camera), constant aerial surveys of the beach can be performed to produce cloud point orthomosaics and DTMs. These are used to rapidly plot changes in shoreline volumes and position.

Using repetitive flight data captured by the AgEagle eBee, DTMs are compared to generate ‘elevation difference plots’ showing changes in beach elevation from one survey to another. The use of UAVs has significantly reduced the time on site and staff involvement, cutting costs and increasing efficiency. The benefits of this are being felt across the Coastal Partners Research and Geomatics Teams, allowing for an increase in the frequency of surveys.

How did Drone Pilot Academy assist you?

We’ve recently undertaken the GVC and GVC conversion courses at our offices in Havant. These courses were delivered with a good mix of theory and practical, allowing our pilots to plan missions to the CAA requirements. Drone Pilot Academy (DPA) also delivered a RPAS surveying course at our active construction site in Southsea. We were taught Pix4DMapper and how to create accurate surveys using GCPs and RTK drones.

We recently purchased two DJI Mavic 3 Enterprises with built-in RTK, as well as a DJI Mini 3 Pro from DPA to allow us to fly at lower altitudes. In terms of software, we bought Pix4D Matic and Cloud Advanced, allowing us to produce outstanding orthomosaics and 3D models

How has the training you received from Drone Pilot Academy helped you in your work with drones for coastal surveying?

The training provided covered a huge variety of topics, including meteorology, Civil Aviation law, flight restriction zones, safe practice of using drones, and environmental restrictions.

It’s helped us to understand what to look for on our drones to ensure that they are in good functioning condition, as well as knowing what permissions we should seek when surveying in certain areas. Knowing how to set up horizontal mapping functions using drones has been a major tool for us at Coastal Partners to obtain accurate data on our coastline for monitoring and research purposes, as well as on our construction sites.

How has the on-site drone survey training you received impacted your operations?

The on-site drone survey training was very comprehensive. Having a checklist with everything we need to look out for pre, during and post-flight has been a big help to us at Coastal Partners to ensure that the drones are in good condition for flying. Being hands-on during the flight practice with DPA’s trainer was another big help for the team as some hadn’t had any experience using drones before, so having an experienced drone operator gave the team the confidence they needed to feel comfortable with flying in the future for commercial purposes.

How do you process the data collected from your drone surveys?

We process drone data using Pix4D Mapper and Matic. The survey course delivered by DPA explained processing for drone surveys with Pix4D and gave everyone a comprehensive understanding of how to get the most optimal outputs depending on the surveys undertaken and what drones were used. For the more experienced members of the team, it was helpful in that it reinforced knowledge, and for newer members of the team, it explained everything that you need to know to process surveys optimally.

What advice would you give to other companies or organisations looking to use drones for coastal surveying?

Drones have transformed how we undertake our work, both in terms of surveys and supervision of construction works. The process is quicker, safer and provides a far greater level of detail and data than traditional methods. This has led to outstanding deliverables and reduced costs, so we would highly recommend exploring how drones could improve your business.

What do you see as the future of using drones for environmental monitoring and coastal surveying?

An increased take up on the use of drones for coastal surveying and site works, due to the decreased personal risk, efficiency in collecting and processing data, and the aerial photography obtained. Drones are also particularly useful for surveying difficult-to-reach areas, or areas which may pose potential issues to health and safety in terms of access and tidal conditions.

In Conclusion

Coastal Partners’ successful implementation of drones in coastal surveying and environmental monitoring demonstrates the immense value and potential of this technology. They have leveraged training, equipment, and software services to revolutionise their operations and achieve exceptional results. 

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