A Melbourne Water pilot project is using drones to monitor environmental health around the outfall at Boags Rocks on the Mornington Peninsula.

The drones measure growth of the seaweed, Hormosira Banksii, commonly known as Neptune’s Necklace, providing invaluable insight into water quality.

Dr Kris Coventry, a Research Manager at Melbourne Water, said the work could support countless opportunities for drone use to bolster scientific monitoring.

“Unique 3D images, virtual reality and 3D renders can be created from this kind of digital photography captured by the drones,” Dr Coventry said.

“We’ve never had this kind of insight into environmental data before so it’s a very exciting time to trial new technology.”

Since 2006, Melbourne Water has completed regular ecosystem mapping of intertidal zones in the region and other sites along the coast. Positive changes in the ecosystem have occurred from upgrades to the Eastern Treatment Plant which have led to better quality water being discharged at the outfall.

“Since the major upgrade of the Eastern Treatment Plant in 2012, we’ve seen Hormosira Banksii populations returning to normal, healthy levels at Fingal’s Beach, near Boags Rocks, which is a great sign of the overall ecological recovery in the area.”

Drone footage of Boags Rocks, Mornington Peninsula.

The health of Neptune’s Necklace seaweed requires balanced levels of nutrients in the water in order to thrive.

“When nutrient levels go too high, other species will outcompete the Hormosira and it will eventually disappear. That particular quality makes it a very meaningful way we can measure nutrient levels beyond simple water testing, which we also conduct.”

Data from the drone monitoring trial is currently being assessed against the data mapped in the traditional way to determine the rigour of the drone data.

“The process to collect this data traditionally involved our people navigating rock formations with a handheld GPS to take detailed mappings,” Dr Coventry said.

“Incorporating drones into the process virtually eliminates the risks to the operators, as well as reducing the time it takes to capture the data and cutting costs.”

If the data turns out to be as robust as its traditional monitoring, Melbourne Water will move towards using the drones to conduct the work wherever possible.

“There are still some areas which will need to be manually surveyed to calibrate the drone images, but overall we’d expect our manual workload may be reduced by as much as 90 per cent,” Dr Coventry said.

Lauren ‘LJ’ Butler is the Assistant Editor of Utility magazine and has been part of the team at Monkey Media since 2018.

After completing a Bachelor of Media, Communications and Professional Writing at the University of Wollongong in 2014, and prior to writing about the utility sector, LJ worked as a Journalist and Sub Editor across the horticulture, hardware, power equipment, construction and accommodation industries with publishers such as Glenvale Publications, Multimedia Publishing and Bean Media Group.

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