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Mapping, monitoring and modelling coastal habitats with UAVs

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  • Full or part time
    Dr D Green
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

Saltmarshes are highly important, biodiverse ecosystems and have high natural capital value. They provide a wide range of ecosystem services, which include climate regulation (they are significant carbon sinks), nutrient cycling, flood regulation, coastal protection, and recreational opportunities and tourism. In order to manage them effectively we need to understand their ecogeomorphology in much greater detail, given that there still remain a wide range of uncertainties, in part due to their large spatial extent, inaccessibility and the subtle nature of micro-topographic variability in their surface elevation.

The aims of this research are to demonstrate the practical potential of using drone-based remote sensing platforms and sensors to monitor, map, and model coastal and estuarine saltmarshes. Our specific objectives are to: * Utilise and evaluate low-cost, off-the-shelf drone remote sensing platforms carrying a range of miniaturised sensors (RGB, NDVI and thermal cameras) to capture high-resolution multi-spectral/temporal aerial imagery of saltmarshes in Scotland (we have identified five sites which possess good habitat data and contextual information on historical development and adjacent assets) * Map saltmarsh ecogeomorphological features (e.g. creeks, vegetation communities) and their spatial distribution. This will provide insight into saltmarsh microtopography dynamics and spatial and temporal change resulting from sediment erosion/accretion * Undertake extensive ground-truthing of the saltmarshes using a ground-based RTK GPS or a small RTK GPS unit mounted on the UAV platform. This will serve to test the ability of the drone-acquired data to establish saltmarsh and floodplain elevation, condition of the saltmarsh/mudflat boundary, saltmarsh surface accretion rates and saltmarsh vegetation communities * Generate 3D models of saltmarshes and their development trajectories over time.

To build up a complete picture of the information that can be collected we will need to acquire a number of different image datasets e.g. RGB, NDVI, Thermal, NIR, MS, and LiDAR for each site to provide a basis to map vegetation, sediment type and distribution, and to permit the generation of high resolution DSMs and DTMs. We will use both fixed-wing and multi-rotor platforms, flown at a relatively low-altitude e.g. 50-70m, and when the tide is both out and when the saltmarsh is inundated with water at high tide. The aerial overflights will then be visually interpreted in conjunction with coincident ground-truthing from vegetation surveys (quadrats and transects), sediment analysis (type and size), micro-topography of the saltmarsh, and height measurements of the saltmarsh vegetation. Dependent on the scale and extent of the saltmarsh sites, and accessibility of the saltmarsh, ground-truthing work will be undertaken on foot and/or through the use of a 4×4 Quad Bike. Data Integration of the multiple datasets acquired within GIS software (e.g. ArcGIS Pro) will be used to explore the relationships between micro-topography, vegetation, and sediment, as well as to undertake geospatial/temporal analyses of the data; the aim being to provide a more complete picture of the saltmarsh study sites that will aid in developing an holistic understanding of the formation and evolution of saltmarsh to provide up-to-date data and information suitable for supporting coastal management.

The successful candidate should have, or expect to have, a UK Honours Degree at 2.1 or above (or equivalent) in Geography, Coastal Studies, Environmental Studies.

Essential background and knowledge in: coastal geomorphology, coastal ecology, coastal management, coastal vegetation, remote sensing, GIS, spatial databases, geostatistics, cartography, digital mapping, and interest in UAV/drone technology.

The other supervisors on the project are:
Pete Smith – University of Aberdeen
Jim Hansom - University of Glasgow
Dmitri Mauquoy - University of Aberdeen
David Miller - James Hutton Institute (JHI)
Alistair Rennie – SNH
Stewart Angus – SNH
Pat Doody - National Coastal Consultants
Rebecca Flitcroft - Forest Service, USA
Jose Ojeda Zújar - University of Seville, Spain


The start date of the project is October 2018. The project will be removed if a suitable candidate is found before the advertised deadline.

APPLICATION PROCEDURE: Formal applications can be completed online: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/pgap/login.php. You should apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Geography, to ensure that your application is passed to the correct person for processing. NOTE CLEARLY THE NAME OF THE SUPERVISOR and EXACT PROJECT TITLE.

Enquiries are strongly encouraged before a full application is completed. To make an enquiry please contact Dr D Green([Email Address Removed]), providing a copy of your detailed cv and a short covering letter. All general enquiries should be directed to the Postgraduate Research School ([Email Address Removed]).


Funding Notes

This 3.5 year studentship is fully funded funded and includes an annual stipend for the student commensurate with RCUK rates (currently £14,777 pa 2018/2019), tuition fees, and a research training support grant.

Applications will be accepted from international students provided that they agree to cover the difference between Home/EU and overseas tuition fees (this being £10,470 pa; indicative for 2018/19 admissions)



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