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USF launches mission to map vulnerable Tampa Bay/GOM coastal areas using ‘uncrewed’ ROV

USV target areas

DEC. 9, 2021 – This week, University of South Florida marine scientists launched their first field mission in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to test a new approach to mapping shallow coastal areas – the most vulnerable to coastal changes and storm events, but the hardest to survey.

They are using a suite of technologies to generate high-resolution maps of these coastal areas: acoustic sensors mounted on an uncrewed surface vessel (USV) that is remotely operated, laser-based sensors mounted on an airplane, and satellite-derived imagery.

“Coastal areas may be the easiest to get to, but they are the hardest to survey from large ships that have depth limitations and may be less nimble than smaller craft,” said Steve Murawski, who heads the Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies (COMIT) at the USF College of Marine Science (USF CMS) that is leading the mission in partnership with NOAA and two private companies. “We’re excited to figure out the best mix of agile technologies for surveying complex, shallow areas — a top priority for Florida, the nation and the globe,” Murawski said. “That’s our primary goal.”

The target areas in Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico exhibit an array of conditions with differences in depth, water clarity, boat traffic and habitat types, which makes this area a fertile testing ground. The work will be applicable to other coastal areas around Florida and beyond, said Murawski, who previously led the 10-year research effort in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The mapping products from this approach will also be used to improve storm surge modeling and prediction, maritime safety, fisheries management and more.

“Coastal resiliency is a top priority for our state, whose valuable natural resources and other assets are vulnerable to rising sea levels, escalating storm events and other environmental hazards,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls. “I’m delighted to see USF and its partners answering the call for research and innovation in coastal mapping.”

More than 50 percent of our nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) remains unmapped, and experts say new approaches are needed.

"COMIT and its partners have achieved a significant milestone in advancing USV technologies with this mission,” said Neil Weston, chief scientist in NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “Our office is particularly interested in the outcomes from these field trials, especially when new technology approaches can improve our national priorities such as shallow water mapping, coastal resilience and emergency response."

Video from USF College of Marine Science »