N.C. A&T, Partners to Incorporate Drone Data to Inform and Improve Flood Response

By Jamie Crockett / 12/17/2021 Research and Economic Development, College of Science and Technology

EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (Dec. 17, 2021) – Leila Hashemi Beni, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Built Environment at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, will lead a project to address gaps in flood extent mapping capabilities by incorporating data gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and implementing deep learning models. She will contribute data science expertise and collaborate with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Southeast Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (SECOORA).

The project, “Rapid Floodwater Extent and Depth Measurements Using Optical UAV and SAR,” is supported by NOAA and is one of 18 observation projects selected by the agency’s Weather Program Office this fiscal year. The selected projects focus on detecting “high impact weather phenomena” including extreme precipitation and flash floods with the goal of developing operational products for NOAA agencies.

Recent weather events in North Carolina include Tropical Depression Fred’s fatal flash floods in late August, followed by heavy rains and landslides causing damage to communities in the northwestern part of the state in October. The latter occurred five years after Hurricane Matthew caused flooding that wreaked havoc on eastern North Carolina by impacting potable water sources in multiple communities, triggering dam failures and drowning animals, which likely resulted in groundwater contamination.

According to Hashemi Beni’s proposal, researchers have relied on optical and radar remote sensing satellites to generate data useful for “determining the spatial extent of coastal and river flooding.” This method is helpful in assessing infrastructure damage and informing models that predict areas that are more susceptible to flooding; however, heavy cloud coverage presents a challenge as it reduces visibility for satellite imagery. Deploying UAVs can help solve this problem because they fly close the ground.

Leila Beni

“This research focuses on how we can make good use of massive amounts of rich geospatial data that are systematically produced, to address and solve challenges caused by natural disasters, help save people and infrastructure,” said Hashemi Beni. “Using drones to fly underneath the clouds, in addition to current methods to gather needed data, will help us extract on-demand high resolution information and see a more complete picture, however, more sophisticated data processing is required.” 

Hashemi Beni will develop methods to fuse high-resolution images from drones operated by North Carolina Emergency Management. This information can help generate accurate and timely inundation maps, which is essential for regional and federal agencies to manage rescue operations and assess damages effectively.

“This project will develop tools, techniques and data that we can use to enhance our ability to become more resilient to flood events, assist impacted communities and enhance recovery activities,” said Gary W. Thompson, North Carolina Emergency Management deputy risk management chief.

This two-year NOAA project builds upon Hashemi Beni’s flood mapping and management research funded by the National Science Foundation.

Media Contact Information: jicrockett@ncat.edu

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