May 28, 2019

The Institute has been making use of drones for a number of projects over the past few years. However, recently, within the Environmental Informatics program, SFEI has been using UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) in particularly innovative ways.

Under a project funded by the California Ocean Protection Council, and in partnership with the State Water Board, SFEI and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) have been utilizing drones, paired with machine-learning algorithms, to survey and detect trash within riparian areas. Surveys that can take hours to conduct on foot can be flown with the SFEI drone in 10 minutes. The resulting aerial imagery is then fed into a machine-learning algorithm that is being trained to detect and count the trash in the area at a scale and speed impossible until recently .

Building on the progress made with the UAV trash detection methodology, SFEI and SCCWRP are now working with the Tobacco Control Program to investigate detecting and monitoring tobacco related products and related litter that have been discarded into our environment.

Yet another project, funded by the Zone 7 Water Agency, illustrates the applicability of UAV-based imagery to restoration projects. This particular project, focused on Arroyo de la Laguna, provides Zone 7 both high-resolution imagery and refined elevation data that will be used for both monitoring vegetation and changes in geomorphology over the next three years.

Drones are becoming increasingly recognized as a useful tool for environmental monitoring and data collection, with SFEI leading the charge into innovative, new projects.

Programs and Focus Areas: 
Environmental Informatics Program