UNCW is the first university to launch a coastal mapping drone observatory in the Southeast

UNCW has acquired a Coastal Mapping Drone System which is expected to open at the Marine Science Center in early 2023. (Courtesy UNCW OUR).

WILMINGTON — UNCW’s Marine Science Center will soon host the UAS Coastal Observatory, a set of drone technologies intended to map North Carolina’s coastal ecosystem.

UNCW is the first university in the Southeast to acquire an unoccupied air system. The purchase was supported by an $850,000 National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Grant awarded to faculty member and principal investigator Narcisa Pricope and colleagues Philip Bresnahan, Devon Eulie, Joanne Halls and Lynn Leonard .

“This acquisition will enable the pursuit and development of new and diverse interdisciplinary applications of UAS-derived data and provide unprecedented opportunities for student training, professional development and community partnerships,” Pricope said.

The new state-of-the-art technology consists of three commercial drone platforms equipped with four complementary remote sensors and other instruments that can survey the coastal ecosystem from the air and the ground. The sensors will collect valuable visual data as well as infrared and thermal data invisible to the naked eye.

With the new technology, researchers will be able to study water quality by using the observatory’s sensors and drone platforms to map submerged aquatic vegetation and harmful algal blooms, which have not been tested in the Carolina coastal environment.

The observatory will also allow researchers to better study the impacts of flooding on the environment and infrastructure, the morphology and evolution of barrier islands, the dynamics of coastal vegetation, wildlife habitat patterns and the identification archaeological and cultural resources.

Not only will marine science students benefit from the observatory, but students of earth and ocean sciences, environmental sciences, anthropology, biology and marine biology and coastal engineering will conduct research and will form in the facility.

“Equipping students with these high-demand skills will increase their competitiveness in the coastal engineering, geography, and environmental science job markets and broaden their representation in the rapidly growing UAS and geospatial employment fields. “, said Pricope.

The UNCW UAS Coastal Observatory is expected to be fully operational by January 2023. Data collected from the observatory will be made available to the public through a dashboard hosted by UNCW.


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