Drones open way to new world of coral research
Camera-equipped flying robots promise new insights into climate change effects on important ecosystems.
Oct. 16, 2013 — Camera-equipped flying robots promise new insights into climate change effects on important ecosystems.Stanford aeronautics graduate student Ved Chirayath photographs coral reefs from below the water using a 360-degree camera.Like undiscovered groves of giant redwoods, centuries-old living corals remain unmapped and unmeasured. Scientists still know relatively little about the world’s biggest corals, where they are and how long they have lived.The secret to unlocking these mysteries may lie with a shoebox-size flying robot.The robot in question is a four-rotor remote-controlled drone developed by Stanford aeronautics graduate student Ved Chirayath. The drone is outfitted with cameras that can film coral reefs from up to 200 feet in the air. Chirayath teamed up with Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Stephen Palumbi to pioneer the use of drone technology to precisely map, measure and study shallow-water reefs off Ofu Island in American Samoa.”Until now the challenges have been too high for flying platforms like planes, balloons and kites,” Palumbi said. “Now send in the drones.”Chirayath, who also works as a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, analyzes the drone’s footage using software he designed. The software removes distortions caused by surface wave movements and enhances resolution. To link the drone aerial footage to close-up images of corals, Chirayath and his colleagues are photographing reefs from below the water using a 360-degree camera. The result is a centimeter-scale optical aerial map and stunning gigapixel panoramic photographs of coral heads that stitch together thousands of images into one.Surveys and maps of rainforests have resulted in new understanding of the vital role these ecosystems play in sustaining the biosphere. Detailed coral maps could do the same, allowing scientists to conduct precise species population surveys over large areas and assess the impact of climate change.The window of time to study these mysterious ecosystems, which provide sustenance and livelihoods to a billion people, may be closing. …
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