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A New Perspective on the World's Marine Life Researchers and students at the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory fly drones to offer distinct views of sea creatures and coastal ecosystems around the globe.

Part Two

Images courtesy of the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory

Text by Amanda Solliday

Video by Alexis Owens

Mapping Coastal Forests in Belize

Mangroves—trees with tangled roots that grow along some warm coasts—attract travelers and bring tourism revenue to Belize. Those same mangroves are being cut down to make space for the infrastructure needed to support the numerous visitors, says Kelly Dobroski, Duke ’19 master of environmental management.

Other threats to the trees, she lists, include sea level rise, increased salt in the water and invasive species, such as the coconut palm.

Dobroski recently returned from a research trip to Belize through a Duke Bass Connections program. She was part of a team of four students led by Justin Ridge, a postdoctoral researcher at the Duke Marine Lab.

The project's goal was to gather imagery with drones that would help locals evaluate threats to the forests lining the Belize coastline. The idea was to take aerial images that could replace some of the current fieldwork needed for monitoring the forests, which requires researchers to slog through the mangroves. On-the-ground work can be time-consuming and even harmful to the trees.

Claire Atkins-Davis, Duke ’19 master of environmental management, catches a drone flown by Justin Ridge, postdoctoral associate at the Duke Marine Lab. (Photo by Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory)

The group began with initial tests of the drones in the saltwater marshes of North Carolina. To conduct the field work abroad, Dobroski coordinated with the World Wildlife Fund and three local organizations in Belize to develop a research plan, select sites and determine schedules.

"It was an incredible learning experience, because it provided me opportunities to learn things that I didn't get out of a classroom environment. To be able to conduct this international research project, I learned both technical skills and gained project management expertise."

-Kelly Dobroski, Duke ’19 master of environmental management

By collecting images from more than 100 drone flights, the team is looking at forest coverage, examining the canopy height of mangroves and details about where certain species grow on cayes, or small islands.

The cameras on the drones create the same types of images as a standard digital camera. For some flights, sensors on the drones also gather reflections of what's called near-infrared light. Patterns in the way the plants absorb or reflect near-infrared light can indicate how healthy the vegetation is, says Ridge. And it's another hint about how development may be changing the mangroves along the Belize coast.

Ryan Moore, marine manager at the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment and a partner on the Belize project, says the Duke team was able to provide his organization with a number of broader research insights, in addition to technical tips on how to handle the drones and use the relevant software.

"We have been looking at utilizing drones more and more in our work," Moore says.

"We have protected areas on land that can also benefit from the technology, and we hope that in the future we would be able to expand our low-cost monitoring in these areas."

-Ryan Moore, marine manager at the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment

The Bass Connections team is now analyzing the data that they collected this spring, and they'll submit a final report to the nonprofit partners in Belize.

The Duke Bass Connections in Belize team flies a drone while aboard a research vessel. Left to right: Claire Atkins-Davis (M.E.M. '19), Kelly Dobroski (M.E.M. '19), Justin Ridge (postdoctoral associate), Alexandra DiGiacomo (Biology '20) and Virginia Pan (Electrical and computer engineering '20). (Photo by Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory)

Students: Twenty-one Bass Connections project teams are currently recruiting additional student team members to begin work this fall. Applications are open and will be reviewed on a rolling basis. The deadline to apply is August 22 at 11:59 p.m.

Related Article

How Drones Can Help Researchers Investigate and Protect Coastal Ecosystems (Bass Connections)

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Amanda Solliday
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Images courtesy of the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory

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