Big Blue Foundation Science Director, Dr Melissa Schiele PhD, founded the first conservation technology hub in The Maldives to use novel fixed-wing, water-landing drones to better understand the levels and rates of plastic pollution in the region. The aim of our project is to develop simple methods using drones to gather images of ocean and beach plastics to build a baseline database of aggregation, deposition rates and classification.
The Maldives is home to the world’s seventh-largest coral reef system and a biodiversity hotspot. Home to more than 1,100 species of fish, 23 species of whale and dolphin and the globally endangered Whale shark the country is a biodiversity hotspot. Discarded ‘Ghost nets’ are a serious problem in the region, but this could be alleviated with machine learning algorithms that detect the nets from drone images. So far over 59,000 drone images have been captured for analysis and Big Blue Foundation wants to expand on this work by setting up a new local training and technological acceptance initiative in 2024.
Building capacity in situ is a core objective for us and our ‘Flying Labs’ initiative will achieve that by providing drone pilot training to local students and individuals working in marine conservation, ultimately providing sustainable employment to Maldivians in order to scale ocean plastics data-collection efforts throughout the archipelago. Our project will address gender imbalance to provide training for Maldivian young women as well as young men. Using fixed-wing and traditional drones, the output from our collaborative research will feed into a national database so the Maldivian Government can make policy changes and open discussions with international Governments to stop the plastics entering the ocean.
Our innovative drone technology has multiple applications, including as an enforcement and monitoring tool in Marine Protected Areas, surveying marine life including cetaceans, sharks and turtles and mapping coastal habitats. The Maldives currently has no habit map and our ‘Flying Labs’ initiative will become the first stage in identifying environmentally important areas of seagrass and mangrove forests, both ecosystems that are vitally important carbon sinks, mitigating climate change.
A countrywide habitat mapping project will enable local communities and the Government to make more informed decisions about coastal development. With over 1,000 islands The Maldives is susceptible to rising sea levels and is heavily dependent on the > 500,000 tourists that visit each year. Therefore it has become critically important to gather this data as soon as possible.