Beach erosion citizen science project finalist in major award

Drones citizen science
Citizen scientists Leon Sweeney and Meredith Lynch and University of Melbourne team member Karina Sorrell. Image: Philip Island & San Remo Advertiser

Volunteer scientists are being recognised for their work to save Victorian beaches with a team managed by the University of Melbourne and Deakin University shortlisted for this year’s Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Innovation in Citizen Science.

The Citizen-Science Drones for Coastal Climate Change Resilience by the Victorian Coastal Monitoring Program has been monitoring beaches, collecting data and contributing to a coastal management program for Great Ocean Road, in particular Marengo and Apollo Bay.

“Using drones and volunteer scientists has allowed us to access information about beaches and erosion rapidly and accurately,” said Associate Professor, David Kennedy, the University of Melbourne’s Director of the Office for Environmental Programs. “This in turn has allowed us to engage a coastal management plan that partners with community and delivers precise and accurate data for researchers and managers.”

While lots of people are using drones these days, the program is considered a world first as it uses citizen-scientists to operate drones for erosion studies. More than 130 volunteers are involved in 16 programs throughout Victoria.

Meredith Lynch, a member of the Cowes East Foreshore Preventative Action Group, said the group was benefiting from being able to access additional data to complement their work.

"We feel it’s fabulous opportunity to donate our time – helping out the university but also gaining important information for our local community. Learning to fly the drone and run the programs have been a great learning experience.”

Secretary of the Cowes East Preventative Action Group, Leon Sweeney, said the program had given the group "additional credibility in the community and all levels of government".

“It is always interesting when you explain to people on the beach what we are doing and why we have rules to abide by while conducting the surveys. Our greatest satisfaction is that we now have factual monitoring that can be used in our aim to protect the Cowes East and Silverleaves foreshore.”

Dr Kennedy said the program, which partners with Deakin University and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and Propeller Aerobotics, empowers volunteers to act as stewards of the environment and to monitor beach change along Victoria’s coastline, providing managers and consultants with survey grade data to inform coastal hazard assessments, mitigation measures and policies for managing erosion.

With regulatory bodies finding it hard to predict the impact of storms on beaches, traditional methods for measuring beaches take time and require significant expense to gauge things like whether sand will return naturally after a storm or an event. Citizen-science drone surveys are not only cost-effective but technologically faster and popular.

“Drones are effective because they can provide a rapid survey of the state of the beach, how much sand has been lost and provide us with excellent 3D close ups,” said Dr Kennedy. “We then make data available online to all community groups who help monitor further changes.”

The current three year plan is to ensure long term resourcing for the Victorian groups and expand the network nationally in Australia. In five years, they plan to use the program to investigate terrestrial ecosystem management as well as indigenous farming before eventually helping countries in the Pacific already experiencing rising sea levels from climate change.

The winners of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Eureka Awards for Innovation in Citizen Science will be announced in November.