Embry-Riddle, UCF Deploy Drones to Map Oyster Reefs

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Twenty-one oyster reefs near Edgewater, Fla., are the focus of a new partnership between Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Central Florida (UCF) to develop methodologies for remotely mapping regions that would otherwise be difficult and expensive to monitor on-site.

The goal of the research is to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to survey the reefs to gather information, including exact oyster counts, without ever visiting the locations in person. If the project proves successful, according to Dr. Dan Macchiarella, professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle, it would signal a clear change in the way environmental data has traditionally been collected.

“The alternative to remotely sensing is to physically travel to a location, and in the case of oyster beds, many are located in hard-to-access areas, like the middle of mangrove tree stands,” Macchiarella says. “There are other applications for remote sensing to sample wildlife, too, including using the technology to locate fish nests in remote river locations.”

The project – conducted by Macchiarella; Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science students Liam Griffin, George Gebert and Kyle Zeir; and Drs. Linda Walters and Giovanna McClenachan of UCF’s Department of Biology – stands as Embry-Riddle’s first partnership with UCF’s National Center for Integrated Coastal Research.

With the help of Embry-Riddle’s College of Aviation, McClenachan is working to uncover the driving forces behind oyster reef and mangrove island ecosystem conversion across periods of marsh development and modification.

For Griffin, who assisted with setting up the aircraft for takeoff and served as the project’s visual observer, the most challenging aspect of the research was finding a safe place for the drones to launch and be recovered. Forced to manage tide changes to ensure stability of the launch and landing locations, the team was reminded that the unique circumstances of each test site must be taken into consideration in order for any mission to be successful, says Embry-Riddle.

“Within this industry, there is a lot of forward moment and upward growth,” says Griffin, a fourth-year student who also serves as the UAS Technology Club’s events coordinator at the Daytona Beach Campus. “So, I like to take every opportunity that arises. I think that any in-the-field work is essential to a good degree program, especially when you have to work as a team toward a common goal.”

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