Drone-users come to coastal rescue

Impact story

A world-first initiative from Deakin University, where hundreds of citizen scientists have been mobilised and are using high-tech drones to help monitor Victoria’s coastline.

Key facts

  • The Victorian Coastal Monitoring Program (VCMP) received Australia’s top science award, a Museum Eureka Prize, in 2020 (Innovation in Citizen Science category).
  • The VCMP is a world-first initiative in coastal monitoring.
  • 14 groups of citizen scientists are now undertaking shoreline surveys with drone photography.
  • 15 Victorian beaches, from Portland in western Victoria to Seaspray in eastern Victoria, are being monitored.
  • Victoria’s coastal activities, including tourism, fishing, aquaculture, shipping, petroleum and recreation are estimated to contribute over $28.8 billion to Victoria’s economy each year.

Citizen science to the rescue

In a world-first initiative from Deakin University, hundreds of citizen scientists have been mobilised and are using high-tech drones to help monitor Victoria's coastline.

Beaches are constantly changing, with erosion and changes to sand supply threatening coastlines and those that depend on them. Victoria’s coastline stretches 2,512 km – previously an impossible challenge for researchers to monitor regularly. To the benefit of all, Victorians have embraced the Victorian Coastal Monitoring Program (VCMP), a new program that trains volunteers to measure when and where erosion is occurring.

Established in 2018, the VCMP provides local communities with the latest drones and all the training required to use them safely. The drone surveys also use smart target technology that allows precise height estimates to be made that allow volume changes of sediments to be measured. During each flight, the drone continuously photographs the beach at high resolution, producing 3D models. These models are then used to prioritise management decisions to ensure the resilience of the coast into the future.

Three years on from its first community launch, 14 groups of citizen scientists have been trained to conduct shoreline surveys with drone photography. They work on 15 Victorian beaches, from Portland in the South West, to Seaspray in the east (Gippsland). These beaches are priority areas deemed to have highly erodible coastline, putting them at risk of sea level rises or storm surges in the future. In 2020 the program was extended into Port Phillip Bay to help inform beach renourishment activities.

With oversight from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and a science team led by Deakin University and the University of Melbourne, the Victorian Coastal Monitoring program is making a real difference, contributing to a diverse range of outcomes, from government agencies seeking to improve coastal monitoring and decision making, to consultants undertaking coastal hazard assessments and informing communities regarding changes in their patch. The data is also providing a valuable time-series that it is informing the scientific understanding of coastal processes and the trajectory of change in our coastal environments.

In their efforts to map the coastline, marine researchers of the past needed to undertake painstaking and tedious work in often challenging conditions on the ground. Obtaining a clear view of coastal change through aerial surveys provided opportunity, but also posed challenges, with images from aircraft and satellites proving expensive, time consuming and often with low resolution, and with limited revisit times possible.

The drones (unmanned aerial vehicles: UAVs) have launched ecological research into new possibilities, capturing high-resolution data down to the centimetre scales and covering priority regions along our coast. The user-friendly drones are programmed with predetermined flight paths to ensure that the sampling can be repeatable, which is important when monitoring changes over time.

Combined with the valuable input of local citizens, this research is enabling a large amount of accurate data to be collected to monitor Victoria’s coastline.

The concept of citizen science has outstanding potential in conservation and biodiversity protection.

Around 9,000 Victorians are members of volunteer groups involved in various programs – from Coastcare, to committees of management, to conservation and friends’ groups. This project offers an international model of citizen science using smart technologies. By engaging these local residents, who have a personal interest in preserving their local area, research organisations and governments with limited resourcing are able to draw on a large, previously untapped resource to document, preserve and protect Victoria’s precious coastlines. Sharing the science back with the community in an easily digestible form is also critical. Story maps of the major findings and enabling self-discovery are key to the success of the program.

We feel it’s a fabulous opportunity to donate our time—helping out the University, but also gaining important information for our local community. Learning to fly the drone and run the programs have been a great learning experience.

Meredith Lynch

Cowes East Foreshore Preventative Action Group

Monitoring the impacts of climate change

Our marine and coastal environments provide immense environmental, cultural, social and economic benefits, in addition to their intrinsic natural values. Central to our way of life, Victoria’s coastlines are resources for recreation, tourism, fishing, aquaculture and blue carbon storage. It has been estimated that commercial and non-commercial activities relating to Victoria’s coast, including tourism, fishing, aquaculture, shipping, the petroleum industry and recreation, contribute over $28.8 billion to the Victorian economy each year. The coast also contains many sacred and valuable sites for Victorian Aboriginal peoples. These extend to our oceans where the team has used sonar technologies to image the seabed, showing glimpses from a distant past. Now submerged by Bass Strait, but important to Sea Country, these images help bring to life lower sea-level stands with ancient shorelines, cliffs and river systems.

In coming decades, communities along our coastline will be under ever-increasing threat from rising sea levels caused by climate change. Among many expected consequences of climate change is the effect on ocean acidity, temperature, storm frequency and surge, erosion and habitat loss, corrosion of built environments, biodiversity (including species loss, increase in pests and overabundance of some species), species’ behaviour change, sedimentation, threats to Aboriginal culture sites, pollution levels, safety, access to coastal land and commercial viability. Coastal monitoring will be crucial for informing management decisions to minimise the harm caused by natural erosion and climate change around Australia and globally.

As an example of the impact of the study, in July 2018, Deakin researchers oversaw drone flights over storm-damaged areas of Apollo Bay, Victoria. The drone data revealed over 5000 cubic metres of sand had been lost across 750 metres of foreshore. The footage collected was compared with previous drone surveillance and assisted the Department of Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) with the replenishment task, which involved moving more than 16,000 cubic metres of sand from Apollo Bay Harbour to the beach – saving this popular beach for the local community and thousands of tourists who visit annually.

But beach change is often driven by more than what we see on the coast. In fact, what happens on the beach can be impacted by sediment supply down to the wave base – which can be in more than 50 metres depth on the open coast. These sediments are also high in carbonate and deposited through the breakdown of animal materials over geological time. Using multibeam sonar technologies aboard Deakin’s research vessel Yolla, the team is closing the gaps in our knowledge of these sediment compartments and the distribution of these reef systems, building understanding of how they contribute to sediment supply and biodiversity values.

Understanding the wave climate is also critical. The team has led the establishment of a new wave measurement network that provides real-time data to help study the effect of climate change on the Victorian coastline. The wave data, combined with high resolution time-series imagery of beaches being captured by citizens flying drones, is already providing important insights to beach dynamics, such as the impacts of storm events and beach renourishment measures.

'You can only begin to see how beaches change, grow or disappear altogether by examining a coastline from above over an extended period of time. Thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of our volunteers, we’ve gathered masses of data that’s available to all and making a real difference.'

Associate Professor Daniel Ierodiaconou, Team Leader, Coastal Monitoring Program, Deakin Marine Mapping Group, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Grants and Funding

The Deakin University Marine Mapping Group, based at Deakin’s Warrnambool campus, leads the University’s VCMP involvement, under the helm of project leader Associate Professor Daniel Ierodiaconou. Post-doctoral students involved include: Dr Blake Allan, Mary Young, Rafael Carvalho, and Stephan O’Brien; PhD students Nicolas Pucino and Yakup Niyazi; Research Assistant Sam Wines; and Senior Marine Technical Officer Paul Tinkler.

Associate Professor David Kennedy leads the University of Melbourne arm of the program.

Collaboration

The creation of partnerships with community groups and institutions to co-invest in coastal monitoring projects at both regional and local scales has been central to the success of the Victorian Coastal Monitoring Program.

The major project collaborators with Deakin are the Department of Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), The University of Melbourne and Propellor Aerobotics.

The VCMP has been funded by the Victorian Government, which committed $4.9 million from the Victorian Sustainability Fund. Initiated in 2017, the Program is being led by DELWP’s Environment and Climate Change group.

Co-funding partnerships have been established with Deakin University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, University of Wollongong and Macquarie University to provide a total investment of over $9 million. The further support of local governments and citizen science groups has been significant. Investment has been directed as follows:

Monitoring of 15 priority open coast beach locations and selected shorelines of Western Port Bay ($4m Sustainability Fund plus co-investment of $3.8m from University Partners)

Monitoring of coastal waves and sea level rise ($760k Sustainability Fund, plus co-investments of $145k from DELWP’s Biodiversity Division and $900k from University Partners)

Monitoring of Port Phillip Bay beaches at Mount Martha and Bellarine Peninsula ($460k from Port Phillip Bay Fund and $200k from University Partner).

Contact details

Associate Professor Daniel Ierodiaconou
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University