NC IT Roadmap - Drones

Mapping Our Coastal Habitats

The Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) maps and samples the benthic habitats within shellfish growing areas to determine habitat type, acreage and abundance of oysters, clams, scallops and submerged aquatic vegetation. A benthic habitat is the habitat on the bottom of a body of water. Mapping the distribution of different benthic habitats is critical to effectively protect and manage our state's estuarine resources. To date, the division has mapped over 602,000 acres of the coastal estuarine waters from Little River in Brunswick County to the northern end of Roanoke and Croatan sounds in Dare County.

Today, teams of three people are sent out by boat to conduct these mapping exercises - one to drive, one to sample the habitat, and one to document the findings. This is an extremely time consuming process. On average, a team of three following this process can map between 10 and 20 acres in a day. 

Using Drones to Simplify the Process

In February 2018, DMF partnered with faculty at UNC-Wilmington to pilot the use of drones to map the estuarine benthic habitat. DMF had one 7,800 acre zone of habitat left to map to complete documentation of our state's estuarine benthic habitats. Using the drone, DMF was able to map 80 acres in just 25 minutes - the equivalent of over 1,500 acres in a day. Three 80-acre blocks were mapped to test the methodology, and all 240 acres were mapped in just an hour and a half. By using drones to map the 7,800 acre site, DMF was able to eliminate the need for three individuals to spend 750 days in the field manually collecting data. Instead, those employees were able to spend time analyzing the data collected.

DEQ has identified several other areas where drones will be used to significantly increase efficiencies while providing safety and environmental improvements.