David W. Johnston, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Marine Conservation Ecology, and director of DMRRSL (Photo: Scottee Cantrell)


DURHAM, N.C. – Researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment have received a $954,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to determine how drones could help the military more effectively combat storm damage and monitor forest fires at training facilities and installations along the coast.

The researchers hope to show how using commercial drones equipped with high-resolution imaging could help DoD land managers better map changes caused by storm erosion to shoreline position, beach topography and sea turtle nesting sites – and other key geological or environmental features – at amphibious training locations and other coastal installations.

The study will also explore how using different types of infrared sensors on commercial drones could help DoD more accurately monitor the real-time progress of the prescribed burns it uses to manage and maintain forests on its coastal lands.

Using these sensors, firefighters will literally be able to peer through the smoke and track the fire’s progression, pinpoint hotspots that bear watching, and identify areas that still require ignition.

“This project will help DoD implement reliable unmanned aircraft systems – or UAS – in fire and coastal zone management, thereby increasing the speed, ease and safety of obtaining useful monitoring products for a fraction of the cost of traditional operations,” says David W. Johnston, director of the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab.   

“UAS-based monitoring is a rapidly developing field, and currently, there are no clear pathways in place to incorporate UAS for use by DoD land managers. Our work will develop the protocols to help balance policies regulating UAS use and provides a clear transition plan to facilitate use across DoD land assets,” Johnston says.

He and his team will conduct the research with partners at the University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences and Attollo LLC.