Drone Observatory for Coastal Mapping Coming Soon to UNCW, First in SE Region

Thursday, October 20, 2022

UNCW will soon be the first university in the southeast to acquire an unoccupied aerial system (UAS) observatory for coastal mapping, supported by a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Grant for nearly $851,000. The grant is awarded to faculty member Dr. Narcisa Pricope and colleagues Dr. Philip Bresnahan, Dr. Devon Eulie, Dr. Joanne Halls and Dr. Lynn Leonard. 

Dr. Pricope, lead principal investigator, said the grant will equip UNCW with state-of-the-art instrumentation that will build on the university’s expertise and bring research and collaborations that had previously not been possible.  

“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,” said Dr. Pricope, professor of geography and director of the UNCW Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) Certificate Program.  

The UNCW UAS Coastal Observatory will be housed at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science in the MARBIONC labs. It will consist of three off-the-shelf, commercial drone platforms equipped with four complementary remote sensors and other instrumentation that can study the coastal ecosystem in unprecedented ways from both the air and the ground. The sensors will collect valuable visual data as well as infrared and thermal data not seen with the naked eye.  

“The advanced instrumentation used in this award exemplifies how the connection between basic research and technology can have practical applications for coastal communities,” said Dr. Ken Halanych, executive director of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. “This type of translational research is what the MARBIONC program is all about.”  

For instance, 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 examples of applications that have not previously been tested in the coastal Carolina environment.  

The UNCW UAS Coastal Observatory will advance several focus areas aligned with coastal resilience and sustainability: 1) flooding impacts on the built environment, coastal infrastructure and indicators of coastal resilience; 2) barrier island morphology and evolution; 3) coastal water quality; 4) coastal vegetation dynamics including saltwater intrusion and the emergence of ghost forests; 5) submerged aquatic vegetation dynamics and harmful algal blooms; 6) wildlife habitat models; and 7) archaeological and cultural resource identification. 

Several departments planning to use the observatory right away include Earth and ocean sciences, environmental sciences, anthropology, biology and marine biology, and coastal engineering. 

“All of our research activities will include and train students, benefit our community and benefit the global science community,” Pricope added. “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.” 

UNCW student Elijah Dalton ’22 is a current graduate research assistant in the Socio-Environmental Analysis Lab led by Dr. Pricope in the Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences. He sees the new UAS observatory as a “giant benefit” to UNCW students.  

“It will create new opportunities for new students, new research and new funding for research,” Dalton said. “The tools and experience that the students will get is extremely applicable to what they will find in a real-world job or for those who want to continue with master’s and doctoral degrees.” 

During his undergraduate studies as a double-major in geography and geospatial sciences and environmental science, Dalton took an Introduction to Geographic Information Science class and discovered a passion for the geospatial field. He became FAA-certified to fly drones through UNCW’s GEOINT program, which recently earned a national designation as a member of the Federal Aviation Administration Unmanned Aircraft Systems-Collegiate Training Initiative. Dalton also completed internships with Insight, a local company specializing in GIS mapping, and with DEVELOP, a highly competitive national NASA program. He credits Dr. Pricope’s expertise and guidance for preparing him for his future endeavors. 

“To know that it is very likely that when I graduate, I will have a well-paying job in the field is exciting,” Dalton 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. 

-- Krissy Vick