CIE Spotlight: Applications of unmanned aerial vehicles in intertidal reef monitoring

Authors: Sarah L. Murftt, Blake M. Allan, Alecia Bellgrove, Alex Rattray, Mary A. Young & Daniel Ierodiaconou

Source: Scientific Reports: Article number: 10259 (2017)

Brief summary of the paper: Monitoring of intertidal reefs is traditionally undertaken by on-ground survey methods which have assisted in understanding these complex habitats; however, often only a small spatial footprint of the reef is observed. Recent developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide new opportunities for monitoring broad scale coastal ecosystems through the ability to capture centimetre resolution imagery and topographic data not possible with conventional approaches.

This study compares UAV remote sensing of intertidal reefs to traditional on-ground monitoring surveys, and investigates the role of UAV derived geomorphological variables in explaining observed intertidal algal and invertebrate assemblages. A multirotor UAV was used to capture <1 cm resolution data from intertidal reefs, with on-ground quadrat surveys of intertidal biotic data for comparison. UAV surveys provided reliable estimates of dominant canopy-forming algae, however, understorey species were obscured and often underestimated. UAV derived geomorphic variables showed elevation and distance to seaward reef edge explained 19.7% and 15.9% of the variation in algal and invertebrate assemblage structure respectively.

The findings of this study demonstrate benefits of low-cost UAVs for intertidal monitoring through rapid data collection, full coverage census, identification of dominant canopy habitat and generation of geomorphic derivatives for explaining biological variation.