Maritime archaeologists use drone maps to survey shallow-water shipwrecks in marine sanctuary

Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay is known as shipwreck alley for a reason. Nearly two hundred ships met their end here, and at least half were never found.

If this sounds like a maritime archaeologist’s dream — it is. But there’s just one problem. It’s difficult, and in some cases impossible, to use traditional underwater survey tools in much of the bay’s shallow, rocky shoreline.

Researchers are now turning to drones and mapping software to locate wrecks in the shallow waters of inaccessible coastlines. Drone-focused nonprofit Oceans Unmanned recently set out to help marine archeologists leverage drone data to find the lost shipwrecks of Thunder Bay.

Oceans Unmanned Helps Researchers Crack the Code on UAV Technology

For those of us who fly drones on a daily basis, it’s easy to forget that UAVs are still a foreign technology to most people. Even maritime archeologists, who often work with complex tools, might not immediately feel comfortable around drones.

That’s where professionals like Matt Pickett and Brian Taggart come in. Through their nonprofit, Oceans Unmanned, the pair helps oceanic researchers and maritime archeologists learn how to leverage drone data in their everyday work.

As retired pilots with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), both men spent the majority of their careers working with scientists and flying research and mapping aircraft for the agency.

“Matt and I have been flying scientists around for twenty-five years, helping them get what they need for their research,” Brian says. “UAVs can be intimidating to researchers. We have the background to understand the science mentality, so we can roll in and help them crack the code.”

When a group of scientists came together to develop technology-centered solutions for locating shipwrecks in Thunder Bay, they called on Oceans Unmanned to lend its expertise. Earlier this year, the organization helped the scientists design a drone-based survey program for the bays’ shallow shorelines.

Drones Offer Alternative for Underwater Survey Along Shallow, Rocky Shorelines

Traditionally, maritime archeologists use underwater survey tools to locate shipwrecks. A sensor is mounted and operated from a manned research vessel, or an autonomous underwater vehicle is equipped with sensors. At Thunder Bay this becomes problematic.

The shallow-water shorelines — under twenty feet deep — house large, rocky reefs, making underwater survey tools impractical and unsafe. Even in sections where the bottom is sandy, these methods are difficult, because research vessels can’t operate in the shallowest depths.


This orthomosaic drone map shows two timbers from a historic shipwreck in Thunder Bay.

Archeologists need a way to locate shallow-water shipwrecks from overhead, but until drones entered the picture, this was difficult. Existing satellite imagery is spotty in the area, and images that do exists are low resolution. Researchers can sometimes detect the presence of an underwater object this way, but they can’t get much other information about it. Collecting images with an airplane is equally problematic due to regional weather patterns, not to mention expensive.

Over a two-week period, Matt and Brian mapped three small sections of the bay’s shoreline, gathering data, refining flight specs, and creating techniques that can be applied by researchers on a larger scale throughout the bay. The goal of this project was to demonstrate how drones can transform the daily work of maritime archeologists, and by all accounts, they did just that.


Geo-tagged maps pinpoint the exact location of shipwrecks, making the job of research divers safer and more expedient.

Launching their drone from a vessel parked in deeper waters, the Oceans Unmanned team was able to survey even the most rocky, inaccessible areas of the shoreline. DroneDeploy’s mapping software took this one step further by turning these drone-generated images into a powerful set of data that can be used to improve safety, reduce costs, and allow scientists to do more with limited research dollars.

“DroneDeploy turns any off-the-shelf drone into a professional mapping and survey tool. It’s the natural choice for our work.” — Brian Taggart, Oceans Unmanned [click-to-tweet]

Researchers can now take initial measurements of wreck debris from directly within DroneDeploy and then export that data into GIS software for further analysis. This doesn’t eliminate the need to send divers down to a site, but it does help prioritize wreckage, so divers only have to be sent to targeted areas. Reducing the time divers spend in the water cuts costs and reduces the chance of diving accidents.

Diving time is further eliminated with geotagged drone maps — giving researchers the precise GPS location of a shipwreck. Divers can now go right to a wreck, instead of spending time searching with only a rough idea of its whereabouts.


Scientists take measurements of shipwreck debris after importing DroneDeploy data into Quick Terrain (QT) Modeler software.

All of this data is made even more powerful by the fact that it can be gathered in real time, as needed. Weather in the bay changes minute-to-minute, and shifting sediments on the ocean floor regularly expose, then re-cover shipwrecks.

Now that Oceans Unmanned has turned drone mapping over to Thunder Bay researchers, those researchers don’t have to weigh the cost of hiring a manned aircraft pilot, or bringing in expensive survey equipment. Maritime archeologists are now empowered to gather the data they need, when they need it. Research needs now drive data collection, instead of the other way around.

Drones for Good: ECO-Drone and DroneDeploy’s FLYlanthropy Program

Matt and Brian recognize that as drones grow in popularity, so do the risks posed to marine resources. They know they are in a unique position to help educate the public about responsible drone use. To further this goal, they developed the ECO-Drone program. Partnering with marine professionals, drone manufacturers, and educational institutions, they are developing a standard set of best practices that minimizes the effects of drones on wildlife and marine environments.

At DroneDeploy, we see an increasing number of mission-driven organizations, like Oceans Unmanned and its ECO-Drone program, taking to the skies for the greater good. Oceans Unmanned recently became one of a growing group of mission driven organizations to join our new FLYlanthropy program.

Member organizations like Oceans Unmanned receive DroneDeploy mapping software free of charge. We want our product to enable organizations that are having a positive impact on the health of the world’s people, habitats, and history — providing them with the data they need to make informed decisions. Because at the end of the day, we believe the sky should be productive and accessible for everyone.

Where to Learn More

Want to keep up with the exciting work being done by Oceans Unmanned? Follow them on Twitter.

If you are a private nonprofit or mission-oriented organization and would like to learn more about joining our FLYlanthropy program, you can do so here.

Interested in hearing how other organizations are using drones for the greater good? You can read about how one research group uses drone maps to create a digital record of endangered archaeological sites. Or learn about a drone service provider in south Texas that helped environmental scientists monitor a nature conservation site.

Have a story about using drones for good that you’d like to share? Join the conversation with us on Twitter.

Get Started with DroneDeploy

Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.



Drones Seek Out Lost Shipwrecks Below Lake Huron was originally published in DroneDeploy’s Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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