Tiny drone aircraft yielding detailed maps of coral reef ecosystems

Oct. 17, 2013 at 5:15 PM
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PALO ALTO, Calif., Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Camera-equipped flying robots can yield insights into climate change effects on important ecosystems like coral reefs, researchers in California say.

Many centuries-old living coral reefs remain unmapped and unmeasured, scientists at Stanford University said, and a shoebox-sized flying drone could help unlock mysteries of these marine ecosystems.

Stanford aeronautics graduate student Ved Chirayath has developed a four-rotor remote-controlled drone outfitted with cameras that can film coral reefs from up to 200 feet in the air.

In an initial study, Chirayath and follow Stanford researcher Stephen Palumbi used the drone to precisely map, measure and study shallow-water reefs off Ofu Island in American Samoa.

"Until now the challenges have been too high for flying platforms like planes, balloons and kites," Palumbi said. "Now send in the drones."

Just as surveys and maps of rainforests have resulted in new understanding of the vital role these ecosystems play in sustaining the biosphere, detailed maps of coral reefs oral maps could do the same for marine environments, the researchers said.

The low-level drones provide better maps that other technologies, they said; satellite imagery through water tends to be distorted by wave movement, radar can't penetrate the water's surface, and sonar doesn't work well in the shallow water where most corals reside.

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