August 1, 2017

Mapping Eelgrass with Drones: 2016 NOAA Hollings Scholar Scott Nesbit

By Bayley Connors

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), better known as drones, have been making headlines in recent years. Their growing prominence continue to raise questions on seemingly every front, ranging from privacy rights, to Amazon’s small-package delivery service. In the midst of these raging debates, Scott Nesbit is claiming an opportunity for marine science.

Nesbit is spending his summer months as an intern with Dr. Juliet Simpson, a coastal ecologist at MIT Sea Grant. His current project relies almost entirely on the use of drones as he maps the locations of eelgrass beds throughout the coast of New England. “They’re quick, easy to set-up, and can be a lot less expensive,” says Nesbit when explaining the decision to use drone technology as opposed to traditional methods of mapping. “You can get high-resolution imagery in 15-minutes and have it processed on a computer in an hour or two,” he continues. This manner of data collection is not only innovative, but also incredibly efficient.

Using drone technology reduces cost, time, and effort when it comes to mapping eelgrass. Nesbit hopes to develop strategies and method protocols during his time with MIT Sea Grant, allowing researchers alike to take advantage of the opportunities that UAS have to offer. The knowledge he gains here will prove useful as he returns to the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire (UWEC), where he has previously worked with UAS in mapping and measuring aggregate sand mines. He is expected to graduate from UWEC in the coming year with a bachelor’s degree in Geography and Environmental Science.

MIT Sea Grant appeared on Nesbit’s horizon through the Hollings Scholarship Program, a prestigious program offered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Every year, 120 undergraduates across the country are awarded academic scholarships as well as summer internship opportunities at NOAA facilities. Nesbit is one of the few who has achieved this honor of recognition, and decided to take advantage of the possibilities at MIT Sea Grant.

Being a full-time undergraduate student, a Hollings Scholar, and a research intern, Nesbit certainly has his hands full. When he does have free time, he likes to spend it outside, with his favorite pastimes being hiking, camping, trapping, and fishing. “Most of the time spent in the outdoors is with my family – hanging out in the outdoors is what I do.”

For now, he eagerly awaits a day with clear skies, low tides, and no wind. A tough task for the New England coastline, it would be the perfect day to make the most out of what drones have to offer.


Read about our other two 2016 Hollings Scholars who developed image recognition software to automate fish population counts.

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2016 NOAA Hollings Scholar Scott Nesbit holds the drone he used to map eelgrass on a beach in Woods Hole, MA.