US team mapping ecologically vulnerable coastal areas off Florida

Fugro, NOAA, University of South Florida and SeaTrac Systems have kicked off a project to autonomously map ecologically vulnerable coastal areas and active waterways in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico using an uncrewed surface vehicle (USV).

Project partners are using a suite of technologies to generate high-resolution maps of these coastal areas, including acoustic sensors mounted on the SeaTrac USV, laser-based sensors mounted on an airplane, and satellite-derived imagery.

The USV, powered by solar panels, is followed by a ‘chase boat’ to ensure its safety and anything in its vicinity, watching out for marine mammals or other unexpected hazards.

The work will be complemented by airplane surveys in early January 2022, carried out by Fugro using its lightweight survey technology Rapid Airborne Multibeam Mapping System (RAMMS).

In total, about 90 square miles will be surveyed, mostly between John’s Pass and Anna Maria Island, and one area off Egmont Key in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Coastal areas may be the easiest to get to, but they are the hardest to survey from large ships that have depth limitations and may be less nimble than smaller craft,” said Steve Murawski, who heads the Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies (COMIT) at the USF College of Marine Science (USF CMS). “We’re excited to figure out the best mix of agile technologies for surveying complex, shallow areas – a top priority for Florida, the nation and the globe.”

The target areas are said to exhibit an array of conditions with differences in depth, water clarity, boat traffic and habitat types, which makes it a fertile testing ground. The work is expected to be applicable to other coastal areas around Florida and beyond.

The mapping products from this approach will also be used to improve storm surge modeling and prediction, maritime safety, fisheries management, amongst others.

In future missions, the COMIT team plans to test sensors mounted on other kinds of vehicles as well, such as drones and robotic gliders.

Mark MacDonald, Hydrography director for Fugro in the Americas, said: “We built RAMMS exactly for this purpose—to deliver efficient, high accuracy nearshore and coastal mapping data that address multiple stakeholder needs, from nautical charting to marine and coastal engineering and coastal zone management. We’re looking forward to seeing how the data will help the COMIT team better understand how we can efficiently map our coastal environments.”