Using drones to quantify beach users across a range of environmental conditions
Beaches are economically and socially important to coastal regions. The intensive use of beaches requires active management to mitigate impacts to natural habitats and users. Understanding the patterns of beach use can assist in developing management actions designed to promote sustainable use. We assessed whether remotely piloted aerial systems (commonly known as drones) are an appropriate tool for quantifying beach use, and if beach activities are influenced by environmental conditions. Novel drone-based methods were used to quantify beach use. Drone flights recorded 2 km of beach, capturing video footage of the beach from the dune to water interface and the breaker zone. Flights were undertaken during three school holiday periods at four popular beaches in New South Wales, Australia. These videos were later analysed in the laboratory to categorise beach users. Of the total users sampled, 45.0% were sunbathing, 22.8% swimming, 21.2% walking, 10.6% surfing, and less than 0.5% were fishing. Participation in walking, surfing and fishing was similar throughout the sampling periods. However, sunbathing and swimming significantly increased during the austral spring and summer sampling periods. Usage patterns varied significantly among beaches, and during the different sampling periods, suggesting that adaptive management strategies targeted to specific areas are the most appropriate way to protect beach habitats and users. Furthermore, we demonstrate that drones are an effective assessment tool to improve coastal management decisions.