Atlantic County Utilities Authority Using Drones to Monitor Landfills and Coastal Dunes

The Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA) is responsible for waste management in Atlantic County, New Jersey. While waste management may be the first thing that comes to mind when residents of the New Jersey shore communities they service think of, the scope of what the ACUA does stretches far beyond that. As stated on their website, “The Atlantic County Utilities Authority is responsible for enhancing the quality of life through the protection of waters and lands from pollution by providing responsible waste management services. The Authority is an environmental leader and will continue to use new technologies, innovations, and employee ideas to provide the highest quality and most cost effective environmental services.” This encompasses everything from community outreach education programs, an innovative wind farm, and coastal erosion management.

As ACUA’s Vice President of Centralized Maintenance and Asset Management, one of Matthew DeNafo’s jobs is to monitor the health and structure of capped landfills transformed into coastal dunes. These dunes have become critical in maintaining coastal stability. Sand dunes, whether natural or man made, prevent excessive erosion, protect against storm flooding, and provide habitats for many species, some of which are endangered. For sand dunes to remain effective, research has shown that banking them lower and wider is more effective. It is also important to have vegetation growing in the dunes. The seagrass grown out of dunes creates the habitats for the before mentioned species. More importantly, the grass root systems are what provide the dune’s lasting structure.

Unfortunately, sand dunes are under constant threat from human and environmental forces. With a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Matthew has found that using technology like drones to monitor dune health to be extremely helpful. Since 2017, the ACUA has been using drones for several undertakings. Drones have given ACUA employees a bird’s eye view of many of the hard to reach areas under their watch. For example, a drone was used to collect data and create a plan of action for a manhole in need of attention hidden from view in a meadow. The drones can be used to monitor gasses emitted from landfills and measure waste quantities. After storms, the drone allow the ACUA to quickly assess landfill caps to see just where to concentrate repair efforts.

Earlier this year, Matthew received a call that the landfill caps at the Egg Harbor Township ACUA waste management site needed to be examined. The maintenance crew was concerned about the integrity of the vegetation necessary for the health of the landfill. While the ACUA has plenty of experience using drones, they do not have the computer software that can take the collected drone data and turn it into an orthophotography map. Such a map could give Matthew and his team a true understanding of the health of the landfill. Depth, distance, mass, and other critical information can all be observed, so Matthew contracted drone data to be collected by Geomatix.

Based out of Pennington, NJ, about an hour and a half northwest of Egg Harbor, Geomatix “employs new, cutting-edge drone and software technologies to solve familiar problems in the construction, engineering, and environmental industries,” as stated on their website. Using a drone with specialized cameras and sensors, Geomatics surveyed a 20 acre plot of the capped Egg Harbor landfill. If vegetation on the landfill begins to fail, issues like erosion, washouts, and sediment deposition arise. While the ACUA has used drones to make topography maps of their landfills, a survey such as the one completed by Geomatix would have had to been done manually.

Geomatix was able to complete the survey in 1/10 of the time it would have taken to do so by a person walking along with similar sensor equipment. Once the data was collected, the Geomatix software rapidly turned that information into a map that showed Matthew that the vegetation growth rate was safe and steady. If the drone’s data had shown problems with the vegetation growth, Matthew would have been able to see the exact locations that required repair, as well as predictive models of where vegetation issues may spread to.

Geomatix had been previously contracted to survey manmade sand dunes along the coast of Ventnor. After years of coastal erosion, a massive dune rehabilitation program took place stretching from Longport to Atlantic City. The project took months to complete, and as Lance B. Landgraf, Jr., Ventnor’s commissioner of Public Works and Construction, pointed out, it is critical to make sure that the dune’s vegetation maintains their structure for success. Chris Fench, Geomatix’s founder sent Ben Jarrett, a drone pilot, and Geomatix’s Operations Manager to create an orthographic map of a 1.7 mile stretch of the dunes.

Again, the data that Ben collected with the drone provided maintenance crews with a detailed plan to preserve the sand dune. Patches of seagrass that had been disturbed from wind, rain, and people walking on the dunes could be replanted strategically. As Mr. Fench said, “The ability to map our planet is a fundamental precondition to achieving a sustainable balance between the Earth’s ecosystem and human co-existence. Each of these demonstration projects was highly successful in advancing our partners’ understanding of their unique site setting and its physical and ecological properties.”

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