SA university lends drones for marine research

The School of Engineering at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa has given unmanned aerial support to researchers studying marine life in the Indian Ocean.

The support has been in form of drones and a kite-borne surveillance system to study marine mammals up close – something that was not possible for the researchers to achieve from their research and supply vessel, the Marion Dufresne.

For well over a month between April and May this year, the research ship left Reunion and patrolled the sea waters between South Africa, Mozambique and Madagascar; with several marine scientists on board studying the interactions between ocean physics and biology on a small scale.  

The NMU delegation included Chair of Marine Spatial Planning, Professor Mandy Lombard; Acting Director of the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research (CMR), Prof Lorien Pichegru; Dr Gwenith Penry; drone operator and project Manager for the NMU Autonomous Operations group (MAO), Damian Mooney; and Jan de Jongh, a Master’s student with Mechanical Engineering (MAO).

Concentrating on an area roughly 10km (according to a report from the university) the researchers studied oceanic fronts on the edge of eddies (whirlpools) in the Mozambique Channel and on the east coast of South Africa.

But, most likely based on experiences from previous sojourns, the researchers knew they would struggle to scout ahead and from any vantage point as they would be confined to their ship at almost all times while at sea – so they invited a drone team to tag along.

That was how the NMU School of Engineering’s Autonomous Operations group (MAO), with the support of the Advanced Mechatronic Technology Centre (AMTC), were came on board to participate in the Resilience oceanographic cruise as a drone support team.

“To improve visual detection over long range, airborne drones and a kite borne surveillance system were brought on board to intercept marine mammals during times where the ships predetermined path did not allow for close contact,” the report said.

“The drones were equipped with petri dish collectors enabling them to collect mucus samples while above whale blow holes when weather and sea state conditions allowed. The drones were operated from the deck of the ship, often hand launched and retrieved.”

Several engineering students were involved with the development of the airborne kite surveillance equipment, as well as the development and testing of the long-range drones with the capacity to operate in the harsh marine environment.

“The close proximity flying needed for the ship-based operations has resulted in the incorporation of First-Person-View drones giving the pilot, and ultimately the University, the ability to perform close inspections and observations of high-speed moving targets, opening up new possibilities of data acquisition.

“The use of drones for marine mammal observation now gives the opportunity for non-invasive observation and sample collection which was not possible previously. Further research will take place into using long-range fixed-wing drones to survey mammals in the open ocean which would normally require human carrying aircraft and the associated costs.”

The Resilience cruise is part of a long term established scientific collaboration between the team at NMU led by Prof Mike Roberts, and the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) in South Africa, which both actively contribute to the cruise organisation and its achievements.

First created as the Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-mer (ORSTOM, ‘Overseas Scientific and Technical Research Office’) in 1943, the IRD is a French science and technology establishment under the joint supervision of the French Ministries of Higher Education and Research and Foreign Affairs. It operates internationally from its headquarters in Marseille, and two metropolitan centres of Montpellier and Bondy.

Alongside the eddy observations, marine mammals, birds, and pollution observers were also invited to gather data while underway.

“The collaboration of Ocean Sciences and Engineering has resulted in new capabilities for both departments,” the report concluded.

“Engineering has gained ties and access to research vessels opening new research and development opportunities for students wanting to focus on autonomous systems related to marine research (airborne and underwater drone technology).

“Mechatronics PhD student Jacques Welgemoed will represent Nelson Mandela University onboard the Agulhas 2 on an Antarctic cruise to research how low temperatures and high sea states affect the performance and usefulness of drones in those environments.”


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