Delaware researcher uses drones to assess storm damage

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NEWARK, Del. (AP) — In the hours after a horrific storm — a storm like Superstorm Sandy — with bridges impassable and roads debris-covered, emergency response is often the first concern.

But with an autonomous drone, researchers like the University of Delaware's Arthur Trembanis can program a computer with location information, drive to a nearby location, deploy a quadcopter with a GoPro camera and get a bird's eye view of damage.

Besides helping with emergency response, the data collected lets scientists gather measurements of storm inundation and erosion, said Trembanis, an associate professor of oceanography at the University of Delaware School of Marine Science and Policy.

Trembanis said he sees many other unique applications in coastal areas for aerial drone technology, including search and rescue, shoreline erosion research and coastal management.

"I take out three batteries, and in a little over an hour, I can cover a mile of beach," he said. "You can quickly take video and get an idea of what is going on."

Trembanis is no stranger to robotic technology. He's used underwater robots, called gliders, to find an uncharted shipwreck off Cape Henlopen, map sea floor and artificial reef changes after major storms, and worked with other scientists to look at bottom habitat in relation to the marine creatures that live there.

"These new robotic platforms provide scientists access to places that are dirty, dangerous, daring and dull — in this case daring and dangerous - in ways that would otherwise be expensive and time-consuming," Trembanis said. "They also provide a very powerful learning tool for showing students the risks and vulnerabilities of the shoreline."

Trembanis has spent the past several months doing research along the Adriatic coast near Ferrara, Italy. The work is part of an ongoing project by his University of Ferrara colleagues, led by Paolo Ciavola, an associate professor of physics and earth sciences. The work is funded by a grant from the European Union, which is looking to plan for and reduce future risk from coastal erosion and flooding.

In February, a severe storm hit the coast near Ferrara with 50-mph sustained winds and gusts of 60 to 70 mph, waves and storm surge. The storm was so large and strong, it broke records in Italy, he said.

After the storm passed, Trembanis and colleagues at the University of Ferrara deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle — what we typically call a drone - to capture post-storm data along the Adriatic coast.

The technology is similar to what a hobbyist can buy off the shelf. The path the drone takes can be controlled by a laptop computer, a cellphone or manually and in real time with a remote control, he said.

But any similarity between the research technology and backyard hobbyists ends when Trembanis and his team take the equipment and images back to the lab.

They take the aerial pictures and video, download it into a computer and use specialized PhotoScan software to create three-dimensional maps and elevation models of the beach. The software also gives them something else. Quickly and inexpensively, they can get a real-time snapshot of how the shoreline has eroded, reshaped and changed.

The tool could be especially powerful if researchers can go out and fly the coast right before storms and then return and refly the same areas just after storms, he said.

Trembanis said that his initial plan with the aerial drone was to begin mapping Delaware's beaches to create a baseline of data using the quadcopter. But in the meantime, the catastrophic storm hit the Italian coast while he was there, so he tried out the drone technology as a rapid damage-assessment tool.

"We were able to provide a useful eye in the sky for researchers and local authorities engaged in response to this natural disaster," he said.


Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del.,

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