Drones may play a role in monitoring marine national parks

20 September 2017

Drones may become a new weapon in monitoring life forms in marine protected reefs.

PhD student at Deakin University’s Warrnambool Campus Sarah Murfitt is investigating how unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can be used to document forms such algae and invertebrates, relieving researchers from the need to spend hours walking on intertidal reefs in marine protected areas.

Ms Murfitt, who graduated with a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Marine Biology) at Deakin’s Warrnambool Campus, hopes her research will have far-reaching impacts.

“Currently the reef monitoring requires teams of two or more people manually counting the algae or invertebrates that make up the intertidal community,” she said.

“We’re hoping that through the use of drones we can reduce the time and costs of survey efforts, and use automated computer programs to classify the different species on the rocky shore.

“This would also help us to expand the intertidal reef surveys to larger areas of the rocky shore, rather than just collecting data across a small section of the reef.”

The study is in partnership with Parks Victoria and is being supervised by Deakin University’s Associate Professor Daniel Ierodiaconou and Dr Alecia Bellgrove from Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Ms Murfitt won a prestigious state-wide scholarship, the Bill Borthwick Student Scholarship, to assist with her training to obtain a remote pilot licence through the civil aviation safety authority and field research costs from the Deakin Marine Mapping program led by Associate Professor Ierodiaconou with funding from Parks Victoria.

Her findings have been published in Scientific Reports.

From the original drone study Ms Murfitt was able to create detailed maps of intertidal reefs at resolutions much higher than traditional satellite or manned aircraft could achieve.

“We were able to identify dominant algal species across the rocky shore, and used topographical information collected by the drone to look at the influence of elevation, ruggedness and distance to reef edge on the algae and invertebrate species,” she said.

“We found that elevation and distance to reef edge were the most important environmental influences on where the species were found on the rocky shore.”

As part of her PhD, Ms Murfitt will further test and refine new methods for intertidal reef surveys using drones, as well as methods for monitoring subtidal reefs.

She will develop and implement standard operating procedures at priority marine national parks and sanctuaries including Point Addis Marine National Park, Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park, Merri Marine Sanctuary, Barwon Bluff Marine Sanctuary, and Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary.

Ms Murfitt is also using underwater video systems and Deakin’s advanced sonar mapping technology to gain a better view of underwater species and habitats as well as developing new ways to use drones to monitor the intertidal regions.

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Deakin news Faculty of Science Engineering and Built Environment, School of Life and Environmental Sciences Environment

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