Mapping species and coral bleaching by drone

Advanced, miniature cameras on drones are capturing details of landscapes that have previously been invisible. QUT researchers are using them to fly low over reefs, capturing almost 100 times the colours captured by standard cameras.

“High-altitude surveys of reefs may lack the resolution necessary to identify individual corals or bleaching effects,” says Associate Professor Felipe Gonzalez, who is leading a team of researchers and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) engineers from QUT in a partnership project between QUT and the Australian Institute for Marine Science (AIMS).

“Normal cameras record images in three bands of the visible spectrum—red, green and blue—and mix those bands together to create colours as humans see them.

“A hyperspectral camera captures 270 bands in the visible and near-infrared portions of the spectrum, which provides far more detail than the human eye can see.

“Since we’re flying it on small UASs—commonly known as drones—at 30 – 100m over the water, we can get an incredibly high resolution,” Felipe says.

The team has used the drones over Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, and collected vision from the Great Barrier Reef while AIMS conducted complimentary underwater surveys.

QUT is now working on building underwater housing for a hyperspectral camera so the technology can be used in marine robots.

“The huge amount of information we can get will allow us to classify coral species, sand and algae, or coral bleaching based on unique spectral signatures, which act much like fingerprints,” Felipe says.

Researchers are building artificial intelligence algorithms to automatically recognise and classify the signatures, so these can be added to a database for future research. This kind of analytic software could also be used in detecting invasive plants and crop diseases.

Caption: Hyperspectral cameras are being sent over our reefs to collect more detailed vision. Credit: QUT Research Engineering Facility

Banner image credit: QUT Research Engineering Facility