Office for Coastal Management (OCM) scientists and their partners tested the utility of private sector drone technology to map marsh habitat in three estuarine research reserves. The team evaluated the quantitative spatial accuracy of both imagery and lidar products, as well as the qualitative gains for habitat mapping in multiple ecosystems.
Obtaining good solid earth elevation data is particularly difficult in dense marsh areas where it is also a critical component to understanding marsh vulnerability to sea level rise. The potential of lidar drone technology to penetrate to the ground with a smaller laser footprint and higher point density could provide a product that is currently unattainable from manned aircraft. Similarly, the detail in imagery that drone technology offers has the potential to provide finer delineations of habitat than the reserves have had from manned imagery. Contract spatial accuracy specifications were set at 10 cm root mean square error (RMSE) vertically for the lidar data and 15 cm RMSE horizontally for the imagery.
During the mission, Quantum Spatial and PrecisionHawk operated the drones, collected the data, and processed it. Staff from OCM and the three reserves (Jacques Cousteau, Grand Bay, and San Francisco Bay) collected independent ground-truth validation data and evaluated the drone deliverables. The two square mile area in San Francisco Bay reserve generated over 380,000 images and had lidar point density of over 400 points per square meter.
The two-year project (Fiscal Years 2016-2018) was funded by NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. The project team includes partners from OCM, Jacque Cousteau NERR, Grand Bay NERR, San Francisco Bay NERR, Wells NERR, Quantum Spatial, and PrecisionHawk.