by Bryan Lindenberger

Three-dimensional mapping is an integral part of surveying methods used in coastal maintenance, and a professor at the University of West Georgia tasks student researchers to use mobile devices to digitally map regional coastlines.

Dr. David Bush
Dr. David Bush

“Before-and-after” 3-D maps provide detailed information to better understand the effect storms and hurricanes have on shorelines. Taken repeatedly from the same locations over time, these digital images can also detail the ecological recovery process, offering insight into best practices in management and restoration of our beaches.

Dr. David Bush, a geosciences instructor specializing in oceanography, works closely with student researchers in digital mapping of regional coastlines. The high cost of equipment has, however, created an obstacle to their research. Appropriate LiDAR (light detection and ranging) gear used by surveyors to create 3-D maps is difficult to carry, highly sensitive to damage, and can cost approximately $100,000.

This price-prohibition, Bush says, keeps LiDAR out of the hands of small coastal communities such as Tybee Island which could benefit from the technology.

“LiDAR surveys are typically only performed by entities such as NOAA or the U.S. Geological Survey,” Bush said. “Resources are limited, so they usually only complete these surveys after a major storm.”

But suppose all that cumbersome, costly equipment could be replaced by a $500 software license and something you likely carry around already: your mobile device.

Working with Dr. Chester Jackson – a professor of geology at Georgia Southern University and UWG alum – this is precisely the solution Bush and his team of UWG students have implemented.

The 3-D modeling software is called PhotoScan from Agisoft. Using spatial data collected by multi-angle images from a smartphone, the software triangulates the information to form 3-D digital maps of the terrain. While not as precise as LiDAR – which can detect nuances in surface features often hidden to the human eye – it functions extremely well in detecting changes along the coastline caused by a storm or general erosion.

Also, ease of use makes it a practical system to track the restoration process over long periods. Frequent monitoring allows for ongoing comparisons to understand changes taking place constantly on the beaches.

Now, thanks to funding from the Student Research Assistant (SRAP) program, Bush has brought aboard two students to assist with coastal mapping of Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia.

One of these students is Joshua Harden, a geology major who began working on the research project while still in his freshman year.

“The first time I met with Dr. Bush, he said we would go to the beach and take pictures,” Harden said. “So of course, I was interested.”

The depth of the project grew from there as Harden immersed himself in the software. In preparation for on-site surveying, he uses images from Google Earth as practice to create 3-D maps in PhotoScan. Harden found he enjoys the work so much, it changed his perspective on what he might do when he graduates.

“The software is used by mining companies,” Harden said. He explained that rather than taking images from ground-level, mining companies use drones to capture aerial images. These images, when run through software such as PhotoScan, more accurately measure the volume of mounds of valuable inventory such as coal. “I could definitely see myself doing this kind of work for a living in the mining industry.”

Graduate student Ellery Harding is also involved in Bush’s research project, but from a very different perspective.

Working toward her master’s degree in biology with a focus on marine ecology, she has a specific interest in restoration techniques used in coastal areas including St. Simon's Island, Tybee Island, Jekyll Island and Sapelo Island.

“This research provides me with the interdisciplinary skills required by my dream job as a field biologist and wetland and coastal delineator,” Harding said, referring to the mapping of these areas.

She plans to work in environmental consulting, helping to protect habitats vital to endangered species. One day, she even hopes to open a marine sanctuary to further educate the public on the importance of coastal preservation and ecological management. In the meantime, she remains focused on the importance of the work she is doing with Dr. Bush.

Joshua Harden
Joshua Harden

“I hope our efforts will be acknowledged by government departments such as the Department of Natural Resources so policy and changes can be made to protect Georgia's unique ecosystems.”

Although Harden’s path may be different, the technology he plans to use in his career is the same. Now approaching his sophomore year, he reflects on the challenge he faced in choosing the right educational pathway for his science degree. Over the past year, he has only become more certain that UWG was the right fit for him.

“The geology professors here are highly engaged, and they know the science at a practical level,” Harden said. “Everyone here is working on some exciting project. I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of that.”

For more information regarding the UWG geology program at the College of Science and Mathematics, call 678-839-6479 or email geosci@westga.edu.

Posted on August 13, 2018