Duke Marine Lab uses Parrot Disco to monitor Hurricane Matthew impacts on the barrier islands of North Carolina.

Hurricane Matthew swept past the coast of North Carolina on the night of October 8th. This powerful storm had already wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and along the southern coast of the US. As it passed, it drenched low-lying inland areas with intense rain, and brought strong winds to coastal areas.

At the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC, researchers working with the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing lab were prepared for the event – eyeing it as an opportunity to use their expanding fleet of drones to assess how powerful storms like hurricane Matthew contribute to the erosion of barrier islands along North Carolina’s coast.

“Drones are the perfect tool to take advantage of this tragic natural experiment” said Dr. Dave Johnston, Director of the Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing lab at Duke University. “Having this on-demand remote sensing capability allows us to assess how processes such as storms affect our barrier islands”

A series of drone surveys had been collected well before the storm arrived. The researchers then used Pix4D photogrammetric software for stitching photos into high resolution maps, providing a quantitative baseline of the shape and elevation of Bird Shoal, a section of the Rachel Carson Reserve, part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve system in North Carolina.


Now the post-storm surveys are underway, including the documentation of how the slow but inevitable pulse of hurricane-related flood waters from inland North Carolina are finally cresting at the coast – and crashing headlong into incoming tides at Beaufort Inlet. This collision has resulted in extremely high tides, leading to an overwash and erosion of Bird Shoal and, very likely, a glimpse of what is in store for this barrier island as sea levels continue to rise due to climate change.

This overwash was well documented in incredible footage obtained with a Disco fixed wing drone developed by Parrot. This low cost, portable aircraft sports a stabilized HD camera that captured the water cresting over the barrier island, inundating most of thin strip of sand that is the only barrier between the Duke Marine Lab on Pivers Island and the opening of Beaufort Inlet into the Atlantic Ocean. Obtaining video data of the physical processes that lead to erosion of the barrier island provides excellent context for the mapping data collected through still imagery.


“We have a vested interest in monitoring how Bird Shoal reacts to storms and sea level rise” said Johnston. “It’s the first and last line of defense for our marine lab when storms push up from the south and our drones are the most efficient tool for the task.”

“Parrot is excited to support the research efforts of Dave and his team at the Duke,” says Dr. Gregory Crutsinger, Scientific Program Director for Parrot. “Their pioneering work illustrates clearly the capabilities of drones to revolutionize how we measure and monitor the earth’s ecosystems under a changing climate.”

You can find more information about David Johnston lab here, as well as the Parrot Educational Program

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