There has only been one winner in the relentless battle between humankind and the power of the North Sea – until now.

In North Norfolk, the village of Happisburgh (pronounced Hazebrugh) was once well inland and stood more than 250 metres from the sea, but steady erosion of the cliffs has taken its toll over the years.

Prior to the construction of a protective rock embankment in 2015, at least one house and prime agricultural land was being lost to the sea each year, leading to immense heartache for worried home owners – and understandable concern among community leaders.

The NPS Group has been measuring coastal erosion in a number of key sites along the North Norfolk Coast for a number of years, to inform protective engineering activity by North Norfolk District Council (NNDC).

Two years ago, NPS Group’s Geomatics team began to pioneer the use of drone technology. Its Geomatics team includes CAA licensed drone pilots trained in undertaking high level photogrammetry and thermal imaging services.

Two independent, 12 minute flights were made during which a total of 763 images at a height of 100m above ground were captured, obtaining a Ground Sample Distance (GSD) of 2.5cm/pixel.

Traditional surveying methods require the positioning of equipment within 2m of cliff edges with a potential risk to staff. Outputs are relatively inaccurate and it is only possible to produce planimetric results, showing horizontal position of features.

Outputs generated at Happisburgh included Point Cloud, Orthophoto, Digital Elevation Model and Digital Surface Model files enabling 2D and 3D data to inform future remedial measures.

Results have seen a significant enhancement to data accuracy. Time on site was dramatically reduced and the risk to surveyors eliminated.

The data has assisted coastal protection engineers to position the rock armour that acts as a cliff base and understand where the line of defence rocks needs to be shortened or reinforced.

NPS Group Land Surveyor, Cesar Hoyos Franco, says: “Government bodies need to put aside the idea that a drone is a toy or another new technological device for geeks.

“The drone should be seen for what it is, a professional tool and an extremely versatile and powerful platform to operate the latest technologies from.

“The advancement of drone technology has made it possible to dispense with expensive manned aircraft in undertaking photogrammetric work. This not only reduces costs significantly, it also allows flights at low altitude or near objects of interest which were unthinkable a few years ago.”

The use of the drone has led to cost savings on site, together with improved data and the ability to produce more meaningful CAD plans/sections at any point on the drone’s flight path, thus improving value for money.

Between 1998 and 2015, the UK spent more than £2bn to protect its coasts from flooding and erosion.

In North Norfolk, the awesome power of the sea remains undiminished, but the use of drone technology is helping professionals to make better choices about protecting our coastline as never before.

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