Testing a new fixed wing amphibious drone in Belize

by ZSL on

Sophia Ellis, MSc student from University of Essex, joined a ZSL expedition to the Turneffe Atoll, Belize to investigate the use of drones for habitat differentiation at various marine protected areas (MPAs) of the Atoll

As a master’s student I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to be on the current research expedition, based at the Calabash Caye Field Station, with ZSL. Hosted by partners at the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA), funding for this research was provided by the Bertarelli Foundation and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and I have been working with ZSL's Dr Tom Letessier and Melissa Schiele.

Photo of the team around a table with the drone on it
The team working through the pre-flight checklist

During my month here, the team have conducted 24 flights using the drones, created by Aeromao, at various locations around the atoll, continuing on from drone research done in the British Indian Ocean Territories last May. These drones are unique because they land on water and have a nadir camera (pointing down) and a live camera at the front, so the team can watch where it is flying. The launching of the drone requires a team of three, with personnel needed to assemble the drone, operate the video system and pilot it as well as monitor flight parameters. 

Photo of the team testing the centre of gravity before flight
Testing the centre of gravity before flight

For my thesis, I wanted to investigate the level of ecological data (from broad habitat differentiation to the identification of different coral morphologies) that could be obtained from drone aerial imagery at different altitudes. To carry out data collection for this, the drone was flown at three altitudes over coral reef habitat. To match and confirm what was seen from aerial images to what was present in the area surveyed, ground truthing was conducted. This involved snorkelling along a 50 m line transect, whilst taking pictures with a GARMIN VIRB. So far, aerial images have shown habitat types as well as megafauna including rays, turtles and a manatee.

Aerial image taken from the drone featuring rays and turtles in the ocean
Aerial images featuring the megafauna of rays (left) and turtles (right), Cockroach Caye, Turneffe Atoll

We’ve learnt a lot about the capabilities of the drone to take high resolution images in different environmental conditions - when using images to detect corals, the sea state can affect the observer’s ability to determine coral genera. A high sea state describes larger waves with white crests, this affects the ability to see objects below the surface of the water.

Aerial image from the drone of a coral bombie
Aerial image featuring a coral bombie, TASA North Station at Mauger Caye, Turneffe Atoll

This expedition has truly been an eye-opener into the world of drone technology and its ecological applications. I look forward to the developments made within the field of this technology and learning more about how it can be applied to map habitats, monitor wildlife abundance and control activities within MPAs.

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