Drone oil spill survey

Drone oil spill survey offers first-of-its-kind view for cleanup

On February 5, 2019, a cyclone shoved a bulk carrier into the edge of a reef on Rennell Island, cracking its hull. The fuel oil spill that resulted made international news, as it happened along the world’s largest raised coral atoll and just northwest of a UNESCO World Heritage site. Scientists consider this area—northwest of Australia—a haven for research given its untouched nature and rare inhabitant species.

Strategic Natural Resource Consultants, based in British Columbia, were called to send experts to assess the spill, including Mike Morellato, a drone specialist with experience in Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique (SCAT). After supporting spills in Canada with traditional methods, he took the WingtraOne on a long journey to this, the company’s first, international spill response.

In the end, WingtraOne’s unique VTOL take-off and landing capabilities along with broad coverage and an ability to handle winds along a sharply-rising shoreline made a marked difference in the first, critical stages of spill cleanup. 

The site of the spill features the largest raised coral atoll on Earth—limited take-off and landing spaces, and fluctuating winds along land ledges

We brought the Wingtra halfway across the world, about as far as we could travel … and it proved to be a vital resource for us on the ground to support spill operations.

Mike Morellato
RPAS Specialist, Geomatics, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants

What is Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Technique?

When a spill happens, some of the first active crews will use SCAT to gauge where resources—staff, bags, equipment —are needed. They also recommend the best cleanup techniques and scout out optimal access into the area to be cleaned. When performing SCAT, experts divide the beach into segments to classify and prioritize. This analysis also provides stakeholders with some insights around the level of effort and time to clean up the spill.

“The orthomosaics from WingtraOne data helped to answer key questions and provided context about priority areas,” Morellato explained. “You segment and classify based on the level of oiling, topographical features and substrate. Having the ortho helps to communicate this to not only our own field staff but also to other stakeholders that may be off-site at the time.” Most of all, SCAT provides a legally-defensible record of what’s happening  along the shoreline in terms of oil spill effects, which enables a summary of recommended action.
Shoreline cleanup and assessment technique map with descriptions
An example of a SCAT map with high resolution imagery as the basemap. Each section of the map provides details to cleanup crews and appropriate stakeholders.

In SCAT assessment manuals, you are traditionally instructed to hand-draw the spill details. Now we have full-blown GIS maps with geo-tagged information and the orthophoto in the background. It’s a big jump in terms of situational awareness.

Mike Morellato
RPAS Specialist, Geomatics, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants

“I wasn’t sure how valuable it would be, until …”

After going through the traditional method of sketching maps of oil spill details, Morellato brought an orange drone halfway around the world and flew it over a high-profile project. To get a nice map would be interesting, but would it be enough to make a difference?

He flew around ten flights with Wingtra’s QX1 payload to map about 5 km (3.1 mi) of shoreline—i.e., the area that could benefit from early stages of cleanup. To his knowledge, it’s the first time a drone survey of this size was conducted for this stage.

Morellato said drone data capture with the WingtraOne marked a major improvement in the way SCAT mapping has been conducted until now. 

“I wasn’t sure how valuable it would be until we started to get feedback on it,” he said. “With imagery from the WingtraOne, we were able to see the situation more clearly, provide needed details of the coastline, and improve map outputs used in support of the response effort.”

Drone aerial map of oil spill along Rennell Island
This reconstructed map of the affected shoreline is based on WingtraOne QX1 data reflecting a 2.5 cm (1 in) GSD.

This data not only gives a clearer view, but also offers a potential to automate the classification of oiled debris so in the future we may be able to estimate types and quantities just from remote sensing methods.

Mike Morellato
RPAS Specialist, Geomatics, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants

WingtraOne’s contribution to a more efficient oil spill response

illustration of location

High-res view of site for feature classification

Takes off and lands in tight spaces near sea

Provides dependable results in wind

Invites stakeholders to accurate assessment

Fast—large coverage per flight

High winds, limited space, no worries

WingtraOne also brought a new level of confidence to the findings based on its reliability in wind and data capture near steep terrain. Just a couple hundred meters from the Rennell Island shoreline, the cliffs can jut up to 130 meters. This forced Morellato to fly high, and in some notably windy conditions.

The WingtraOne was exposed to some strong winds. If we had a traditional fixed-wing it would be quite challenging out there. It was nice to have that VTOL capability and not have to worry about bringing it in. Sometimes, there wasn’t a lot of room to land.

Mike Morellato
RPAS Specialist, Geomatics, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants

How to clean an oil spill

Maximize efficiency in the early stages:
  • Run a SCAT
  • Segment the beach
  • Determine the best methods and access to the area to be cleaned
  • Recommend tools and level of resources needed
  • Communicate results to all relevant stakeholders
Morellato and colleague with WingtraOne on beach
Morellato (left) and colleagues used WingtraOne data to segment and strategizes the first cleanup stages of the high-profile Rennell Island oil spill this past spring.

A drone for thinking out of the box

Strategic Natural Resource Consultants uses WingtraOne for other surveys as well, such as for forestry in places that are difficult to inventory with other methods.

“The VTOL feature has been really good for us, because we’re often flying from places that give us little space, like the width of a road,” Morellato said. “Often times, we’re going in blind to a site that I’ve never been to.”

Indeed, WingtraOne has proven itself to be a reliable, low-maintenance and insightful “best friend” for the type of projects the company responds to. Morellato said he has even cleared areas with a machete for take-off and landing. The risk of leaving WingtraOne out of projects seems to be more troubling than these unusual feats to include it!

I'm sure we are doing things that are not traditional and breaking new ground in spill response with the WingtraOne.

Mike Morellato
RPAS Specialist, Geomatics, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants

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