Drones: a game-changer in keeping beaches clean

Off-the-shelf drones are beinf used to monitor beached litter along Maltese coastal stretches and generate density maps for it

A local oceanography research group has successfully developed a method for using a drone to monitor and assess beach litter.

In a paper published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, Alan Deidun, Adam Gauci and Serena Lagorio describe a method for using an off-the-shelf drone to monitor beached litter along Maltese coastal stretches and generate density maps for it.

By doing so, the researchers were able to determine the type of litter present on each beach.

The authors said this would be a cost-effective alternative to traditional, time-consuming monitoring of beached litter involving extensive human resources, besides assisting in the monitoring of difficult-to-access coastal stretches.

Deidun told MaltaToday that the European Commission’s Marine Strategy Directive requires member states to analyse trends in the occurrence of beached litter and that the method developed could prove useful in this regard.

The approved MSFD monitoring programme for the Maltese islands proposes that every three months, visual surveys by human observers are conducted on two recreational beaches along two 100m-long stretches on each beach and said the method could be used to fulfil this requirement.

In the study, three coastal stretches at Baħar ic-Cagħaq and Qawra Point were regularly monitored via drone. The captured images were then imported into Google Earth and litter dentistry mapped. Following a ground verification exercise, litter was then quantified as plastic, rope, wood, rubber or ‘other’.

While useful in meeting Malta’s MSFD requirements, the method could also be used to guide clean-up efforts around the island.

Deidun said he had so far met with a number of NGOs, including Zibel, Say No To Plastic and Din l-Art Helwa to discuss ways in which the method can be used in clean-ups.

“The next step is to scale it up and explore ways of using it on a national level,” Deidun said. “It can help prioritise areas for clean-ups and map out where and how the litter is being generated.”

Deidun, who was recently appointed Malta’s United Nations Oceans Ambassador, said the group had applied for EU funds to buy more drones, which would allow them to cover a wider area. The group has also bought an underwater drone, which it plans to use to map out underwater habitats in a similar manner.

The method’s use is not limited to litter.

“When you import the data into software like Google Maps, its functionality explodes,” Deidun said, adding that there were many different potential applications for the method, including some he probably hadn’t thought of yet.

Combining litter distribution data with information about human activity could identify patterns of behaviour and the resulting environmental effect and guide policy decisions like determining where to place bins, and how often they need emptying.

In addition to monitoring litter, drones could be used to monitor phenomena such as  jellyfish blooms or illegal dumping of oil and waste by ships. “We’re also exploring having drones with different types of sensors that would allow more specialised data to be collected for the testing of water quality, for example,” Deidun added.

Deidun did not exclude pitching it to government over the coming weeks. With the proof of concept having been a success, he said the main challenge was now to join the dots and look for more innovative uses for the technique.

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