Duke Marine Lab’s Drone Center Receives $580K in Grants

September 15, 2016

Contact: Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu


Note: Dave Johnston can be reached for additional comment at (252) 504-7593 or david.johnston@duke.edu.

DURHAM, N.C. – The Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Laboratory at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C., has received two grants totaling $580,000.

A new, one-year, $310,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Division of Biological Infrastructure will allow the lab – commonly called the Drone Center – to upgrade its R&D and teaching facilities.

A $270,000 grant, approved in 2014, from the Oak Foundation will allow the center to expand its operational capacity.

“It’s so great to receive both these grants at the same time. The NSF grant allows us to modernize our teaching and engineering spaces, purchase new aircraft and upgrade our computing capabilities, all of which are essential for our program’s continued growth. But you can’t grow without people, and the Oak Foundation grant addresses that need. It supports a two-year postdoctoral fellowship to expand our science capacity, and an engineer to maintain our aircraft and help us execute projects,” says David W. Johnston, the center’s executive director and an assistant professor of the practice of marine conservation ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“This is truly a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Johnston says.

The drone center was launched in 2015 and is one of only a handful of facilities nationwide – and one of only two in North Carolina – that has earned a Section 333 Exemption from the Federal Aviation Authority to use drones for research.

Since opening their doors, Johnston and his staff have used their fleet of 12 drones to map and measure coastal erosion, analyze marine debris, count gray seals and sea turtles, map coastal vegetation, help devise new technologies to spot sharks in estuaries and along beaches, and even collect mucus from whales’ blowholes to help scientists gauge the health of endangered North Atlantic right whale populations in waters off the U.S. East Coast.

The data they collect holds the potential to yield lasting scientific and social benefits, from helping ecologists more accurately track the status of threatened species to allowing communities to more effectively monitor and mitigate threats from coastal erosion, sea level rise and pollution.  

Emerging projects are extending the center’s reach to the offshore waters of Antarctica and archaeological dig sites in Italy.

Closer to home, the center’s staff uses drones as focal points in science outreach programs for area K-12 students. They also test and develop new drone platforms and sensors that could help make the technology more affordable and adaptable, and train graduate and undergraduate students how to use the emerging technologies. This past summer, the center offered its first courses on the use of drones in marine science and conservation for advanced students, area scientists and conservation professionals.

“We’re the only university-based, marine-focused drone facility in the country that does such a broad array of things, and we’re probably still just scratching the surface of everything this technology could potentially let us do,” Johnston says. “These synergistic grants from NSF and the Oak Foundation will help us take our program to the next level.”