An academic at Loughborough University is creating drone technology to determine the size of tiny, underwater sediments in an effort to understand how rivers are reacting to environmental drivers, including climate change.
Dr Amy Woodget, Physical Geographer from the School of Social Sciences, hopes that her research using machine learning and drone imagery will enable small sediments measuring 0.5 cm to be precisely determined, offering useful scientific data that will expose how rivers are truly behaving.
Tracking the continuous changes in river habitat sediment (matter that settles at the base of the water) is significant for many reasons.
The sizes of sediment are known to have different and extreme impacts on rivers. The accumulations of large sediment can divert the flow to neighboring streams, land, or critical habitats or cause upstream flooding. Increased fine sediment can also impact the penetration of light into the water and lead to algal blooms.
By examining the sediment size patterns, experts can figure out the changes that are taking place in rivers owing to environmental factors.
Patterns like that can also show how the size and shape of river channels are changing, which is significant because it means the amount of water that can be accommodated by a channel can be measured, and experts can then assess the extent of a river’s susceptibility to flooding.
Besides that, the size of the sediment is significant to ecologists because it indicates the kind of habitats available in a river.
According to Dr Woodget, drones make it possible to study the environments in relatively more detail than ever before and this could turn out to be extremely significant in making the right decisions to control the environments efficiently.
This research project aims to measure the size of underwater river sediments using a novel technological approach using drone imagery and machine learning. We need to know how to accurately measure underwater sediment sizes in fine detail in order to improve our understanding of how rivers and their resident animal and plant life are changing and responding to big environmental drivers like climate change.
Dr Amy Woodget, Physical Geographer, School of Social Sciences, Loughborough University
Dr Woodget continued, “Using drones is a bit like the difference between driving with your glasses on instead of off, if you're short-sighted. The detail revealed by wearing the glasses—or in this case from the detailed drone imagery—helps us make better decisions to ensure our safety and that of others.
“So, this means that if we care about our economies, homes, industries, agriculture, transport networks, recreational and environmental spaces and how they might be threatened by climate change, then we need to be able to measure and monitor physical parameters like sediment size accurately and with our glasses ‘on’.”
Dr Woodget will conduct fieldwork at two river sites— along the England-Wales border and in the Lake District—both of which experienced extreme flooding in 2015 owing to Storm Desmond.
The British Sedimentological Research Group funded the research project, which is anticipated to run for about two years.
Drones used to understand environmental changes
(Video credit: Loughborough University)