Kites and GoPro Cameras Speed Up Marine Research for Coral Reefs

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Tubbataha by Gregg Yan & WWF
By Gregg Yan, WWF
Chugging along on a chase boat, we lower a curious contraption into the crystal waters of Tubbataha’s North Atoll. Though it looks like what you’d get by crossing a farm plow with a bunch of GoPro cameras, it will change the way we look at coral reefs.  With the dedicated scientists and engineers of the Automated Rapid Reef Assessment System (ARRAS) team, I’ve returned to Tubbataha to check how last year’s back-to-back ship grounding scars are healing.

Kite Aerial Image of Min Long Yu Scar  (ARRAS Team)Earlier, we dove into the ‘Highway of Death’ – the main scar wrought by the F/V Min Long Yu, a Chinese poaching vessel that smashed 3902 square meters of North Atoll’s reefs last April 2013. A year on, the site looked the same – barren, with crushed corals, rocks and a light coating of hair algae kept at bay by fidgety shoals of herbivorous surgeon and rabbitfish. New life is sprouting, but recovery will take decades.
“This camera array has five GoPro cameras, each taking a continuous video of the seafloor,” explains ARRAS Engineer Francis Corpuz. “Since they’re spaced a meter apart, the videos overlap, allowing us to stitch the images and rapidly generate a large picture of the damage.” We’re done in three hours – far more efficient than jumping in with measuring tools and slates.
Low Cost, High Returns
Anchoring the northern tip of the Coral Triangle, the Philippines hosts 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs. No one’s sure what the exact figure is because like forests, coral cover fluctuates yearly. After the 1998 El Niño, when surface temperatures rose an average of 1.5°C, 16% of the world’s coral reefs died. Up to 49% of Philippine reefs suffered from bleaching episodes – with hard corals expelling the life-giving symbiotic algae which give them color. Beset by half-a-century of overfishing, coastal development and pollution, 40% of Philippine reefs are in poor condition, with just 1% rated excellent. Ever dynamic, monitoring their year-on-year status has been difficult.
Tubbataha 2014 by Gregg Yan & WWF (2)“We developed ARRAS in 2010 to make marine fieldwork faster and more cost-effective,” explains ARRAS head Dr. Maricor Soriano. “We needed tools that were inexpensive, easy to build and durable. The recent surge of sturdy sports cameras like GoPros have greatly accelerated our work – allowing us to study reefs at a fraction of the cost. Images can be reviewed to minimize observer errors.” Dr. Soriano’s passion is image processing, her pursuits ranging from digitally cleaning-up old paintings to analyzing the movement patterns of sports players.
A collaboration between the Department of Science and Technology, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, National Institute of Physics, UP Marine Science Institute, UP Computer Science Department, Mapua Institute of Technology, De Lasalle University, Tubbataha Management Office and the World Wide Fund for Nature, ARRAS was instrumental in assessing Tubbataha’s twin grounding scars last 2013.
WWF has been working to protect the Tubbataha Reefs since 1996. While a typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef annually generates 65 metric tons of fish biomass, Tubbataha generates over 200 and constantly seeds the Sulu Sea with fish and invertebrate spawn.
A brand-new Ranger Station, featuring a research facility for scientists and researchers to conduct fieldwork for months at a time, is slated for groundbreaking this September. Barring unforeseen delays, the soft-launch is slated for the summer of 2015. Says WWF-Philippines Tubbataha Project Manager Marivel Dygico, “Technology-based tools like ARRAS give us an unprecedented glimpse of the state of coral reefs. This provides science-based data to guide our conservation efforts.”
Tubbataha 2014 by Gregg Yan & WWF (1)Bird’s-eye to Fish-eye
ARRAS currently uses three reef monitoring systems: the first uses protocol perfected by the team of Dr. Cesar Villanoy of UP MSI, using a sports kite to provide bird’s-eye images of sites – perfect for damage assessments. A GPS unit, stabilizer and GoPro camera are rigged 50 feet below the kite, which is towed by a boat or led by a ground team. The camera shoots high-resolution pictures each half-second and needs just one perfect shot – right above target, with minimal glare or obstruction. “The kite needs enough wind to lift the camera payload. Without wind, we need to run the boat at 12 kilometers per hour so the kite can fly. We’ve used weather balloons to operate in areas with weak winds. We’re also considering drones,” says ARRAS researcher and physicist Laurice Jeanette Dagum.
The second system is called the teardrop from the shape of its plexiglass camera housing. Built by Mapua engineers led by Engr. John Judilla, it is slowly pulled along by a boat. It sports a GPS unit plus a GoPro camera, which takes six second video clips that are stitched to form a reef mosaic. Used for spots about five meters deep, teardrops have been used to survey at least 22 sites around the country.
The third and most impressive is the camera array – a four-meter aluminum rig featuring a GPS and five downturned GoPros spaced a meter apart. Each GoPro continuously shoots video, all stitched together to provide a comprehensive, easily-reviewable image of the seafloor.
ARRAS Stitch Example - Batangas -  (ARRAS Team)The key to ARRAS is the ability to stitch and deduce data from images. This is where Engineer Francis Corpuz comes in. For his Master’s Thesis, Corpuz developed software to automatically stitch videos of coral reefs far better than existing programs like Microsoft ICE and Autostitch. The stitched videos can be geotagged and directly uploaded on Google Earth.
A Race Against Time
The day’s work done, we review images aboard WWF’s research vessel, the M/Y Navorca. Dr. Soriano and I chat over a cup of brew. “Our dream is to create an atlas of Philippine coral reefs by surveying 10,000 of the 27,000 square kilometers of Philippine reefs. Since 2010, we’ve covered about 400 square kilometers – but since many coastal habitats are in decline, it’s a race against time.”
One solution is to share ARRAS technology and skills to all 21 Philippine universities with marine science programs. “It will take us 1000 days to do this alone. With each school participating though, just 47 working days are needed. This is what we call citizen science – empowering schools, local governments and communities to both study and steward their own reefs. We can key in our maps directly onto Google Earth – meaning anyone can see how our reefs are doing. It is freeware – and a whole new way of looking at our seas.”
On her laptop, we study the grounding sites, each image worth a thousand words. The scars from both the F/V Min Long Yu (which in April 2013 obliterated 3902 square meters of North Atoll’s reefs) and the USS Guardian (which destroyed 2345 square meters of South Atoll in January 2013) are still fresh. The Philippines filed a $1.3M request for compensation from the American government on 13 June 2014. The Chinese government has been mum about its grounding incident.
I ask Dr. Soriano what she thinks of the damage. “Just give them time. Leave them alone, the way we let a damaged forest heal itself. Remember that the human timeframe is far different from the ecological timeframe. With protection, Tubbataha will recover. Nature is more resilient than we think.”
Research is a never ending process. The time series data files that the Tubbataha Management Office maintains provides a rich source of information to give us vital clues on how best to keep our oceans productive in a climate-defined future.


Show and Tell for Educators at WWF’s Floating Classroom

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Navorca (Gregg Yan & WWF)RE Class (Maye Padilla & WWF)Press Release:

Ever daydreamed of being on an enchanting tropical cruise while in class? Well, 30 Palawan teachers just got their wish. The M/Y Navorca, the Philippine research vessel of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), was transformed into a floating classroom for a day. Moored at Palawan’s Puerto Princesa Bay, the 80-foot wood-and-fibreglass vessel was acquired in 2008 and refurbished with state-of-the-art navigation, communications and research equipment through the help of the Grieg Shipping Group, Grieg Foundation and WWF-Norway.
“This is the first time we turned the Navorca into a field classroom,” says WWF-Philippines Environmental Educator Ruel Bate, part of the team which conducted the Education is Adaptation workshop for Puerto Princesa-based teachers and school administrators last 27 June. “Talking about a coral reef is far different from showing students one. Showing, rather than telling, makes it easier to understand real-world applications.”
The floating classroom played host to three talks. Ship captain Ronald de Roa taught a class on renewable energy technologies, proudly showing off the ship’s solar panels and micro-wind turbines, which supply the vessel with free, zero-emissions electricity.
Jeric Dejucos from the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) showed teachers how to craft digital maps of coral reefs plus other marine habitats. Using GoPro cameras and advanced photo-stitching technology, the government-led Automated Rapid Reef Assessment System or ARRAS was instrumental in assessing the twin grounding scars incurred by the Tubbataha Reefs in 2013. Three teachers were particularly proud, for Jeric was their former student.
WWF boat crewmen Arnel Escobin and Jun Magbanua led the final group, who snorkelled at Mag-asawang Bato, a coral reef and future Marine Protected Area (MPA) by the outskirts of Puerto Princesa. Grey skies broke to pour sheets of rain before lunch, an opportunity taken by WWF to teach residents of nearby Barangay Mangingisda how to harvest rainwater – leaving behind 10 plastic drums before returning to the M/Y Navorca.
“Our goal is to educate not just students – but the teachers themselves,” explains WWF-Philippines Environmental Educator Maye Padilla. “Concrete experiences like today’s fishing community visit shall make it easy for educators to integrate conservation into their curriculum. Examples for math or science lessons can be skewed towards the environment. This makes learning less theoretical and more progressive.”

The daylong session was the culmination of a two-day Environmental Life Skills (ELS) workshop supported by the Department of Education, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS) and Grieg Star. Additional visits shall train educators from other Palawan towns. Says Grieg Star Group Representative Jannicke Steen, “Together with WWF, we have been inculcating environmental education lessons into our ship cadet’s classes since 2011. We wanted to bring our work to coastal communities, who are true stewards of the sea.”
Before sunset, the floating classroom returned to port, discharging 30 new environmental educators.Participants with Rainwater Collectors (Jeric Dejucos)

WWF Defends Solar Projects as Economical, Blasts FEF’s Bloated Figures

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Philippine Power Gen Mix 2011Press Update:

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines) contests the figures cited by the Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF) in their recent press release opposing the increase in solar energy installation targets.

The FEF claims the cost to the Filipino consumer for implementing these new solar projects amounts to PHP12 billion annually. When WWF’s own energy experts computed the cost of the new solar projects based on Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) rates and current electricity prices – the cost was just a little over PHP3 billion.

“WWF is ready to show its computations. FEF should immediately reveal how they arrived at these prices if they want to be transparent about their advocacy of opposing solar power for the sake of the Filipino people. So far, what we have are publicly-circulated statements without any technical explanation. Where did these figures come from?” asks WWF-Philippines Vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan.

Figures Don’t Match­

WWF doesn’t stand alone. The FEF figures also do not match the National Renewable Energy Board (NREB) figures. In WWF’s technical analysis, the additional 450 MW solar power installations with a FiT rate of PHP9.68 per kWh will only amount to an additional PHP3,279,744,000.

Solar plants operate at an average capacity factor of 20% because solar plants do not produce energy at night, or when cloud cover is heavy. Based on this, 450 MW of additional solar power plants shall produce an estimated 788,400,000 kWh a year.

Current Meralco generation charges are pegged at PHP 5.52/kWh. When this is subtracted from the cost per kWh of solar power, a difference of PHP 4.16/kWh emerges. This means that producing 1 MW of solar power will only cost an additional PHP 4.16 compared to today’s generation charges. When one multiplies the total amount of kilowatts that solar plants will produce using that rate, then the figure amounts to PHP 3 billion – a far cry from FEF’s PHP 12 billion estimate.

WWF also estimated that the added cost to a consumer’s electricity bill would be a maximum of PHP 0.05/kwh for the additional 450 MW of solar plants. This price shall never increase and in fact, will only decrease over the next 20 years. However, FEF estimated that the added cost to a consumer’s electric bill would be PHP 0.32/kwh, showing a huge disparity.

This means that a household with an average monthly consumption of 300 kWh will only pay an additional PHP 15 per month for clean RE, which is also cheaper in the long run. This would eventually stabilize the cost of electricity, thereby achieving long-term energy security for the Philippines.

“These bloated FEF figures create false public information and delay RE projects, while promoting expensive fossil fuels. The Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) was originally implemented to limit the cost of electricity. Has that happened? No. One of the causes is our over-reliance on fossil fuel based power plants whose fuel prices continue to fluctuate and rise,” explains WWF Climate Change and Energy Programme Head Atty. Angela Consuelo Ibay.

Cost per kWh of Additional Solar FiTFossil-Fuel-Powered Electricity Most Expensive in Asia

EPIRA was implemented in 2001 when the Philippine power generation mix had a 37.29% share of RE and a 62.71% share of fossil fuels. Since then, the share of RE has dropped to 28.37% as of 2011 and the price of electricity in the Philippines is now considered among the highest in Asia.

WWF supports the DOE’s initiative to increase RE in the country’s power generation mix. If it is the government’s desire to help stabilize electricity prices over the next 20 years – achieving greater energy security and national competitiveness – then it is imperative that we reduce dependence on imported fossil fuel supplies, the prices of which we have no control over.

RE sources are among the country’s few competitive advantages, especially since it is poor in fossil fuel resources. “Major increases in our power rates were caused by generation cost hikes. With fossil fuel prices continually rising due to dwindling supplies and soaring demand, the cost of our electricity shall rise further – unless we use RE to shield us from the cost volatility of fossil fuels,” adds Ibay.

WWF requests FEF to release the technical basis for their statements so that misconceptions regarding the implementation of the FiT rates can be cleared up and stakeholders can be properly informed on the true cost of RE when compared to current electricity costs.

“Do we have an efficient power distribution system today? Do we control the supply and cost of fossil fuels? Are our energy prices affordable? Do we still suffer brownouts?” asks Tan. “Our 50-year old, fossil fuel dependent system has not worked. Why invest good money after bad? Show me a coal plant that will commit to shield the poor and hold its power generation prices constant for 20 years. It is the age of energy self-sufficiency. We have renewable options. Let us use them.”