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Sunday, May 26, 2024

UNCW first university to launch coastal mapping drone observatory in southeast

UNCW has acquired a coastal mapping drone system set to open in the Center for Marine Science in early 2023. (Courtesy UNCW OUR).

WILMINGTON — UNCW’s Center for Marine Science will soon become home to the UAS Coastal Observatory, a collection of drone technology geared toward mapping North Carolina’s coastal ecosystem. 

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

“This acquisition will enable continuation and development of new and diverse interdisciplinary applications of UAS-derived data and provide unparalleled 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 instrumentation that can study the coastal ecosystem from both the air and ground. The sensors will collect valuable visual data as well as infrared and thermal data not seen with 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 algae blooms, both of which have not been tested in the coastal Carolina environment.  

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

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

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

The UNCW UAS Coastal Observatory should be fully operational by January 2023. Data collected from the observatory will be available to the public via a UNCW-hosted dashboard.

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