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WRL BeachStat: New beach monitoring system unlocking unprecedented information about coastal zone

A new beach monitoring system pioneered by UNSW’s Water Research Laboratory is providing Australian Councils with a cost-effective solution to unlock unprecedented information about our coastal zone.

WRL has been undertaking coastal imaging for over 20 years to quantify and understand the continuous and fluctuating movement of sand on our open coastline beaches along Australia’s eastern seaboard.  Historically, manual ground surveys were commonly used for this purpose, but the time and effort required and the unpredictable nature of weather mean that these techniques are not suitable for ongoing monitoring of beach sand patterns and change over time.  Automated camera systems overcome these shortcomings – ever present, continuously collecting images of the beach that can be processed into measurements of sand movements before and after storms.  WRL has expanded its high accuracy systems in the last decade, using sophisticated networks of fixed cameras on the Gold Coast, the Tweed River and at Narrabeen-Collaroy to monitor shorelines and learn how and why the coasts are changing.

Our new system is completely self-contained and can be easily installed on existing beach infrastructure such as on lifeguard towers, making it more accessible to local councils who can use the data to make well informed coastal management decisions

Chris Drummond, Senior Project Engineer, UNSW Water Research Laboratory

Recent camera and software technology advances have opened up new opportunities in the availability and analysis of coastal images.  WRL’s innovative BeachStat monitoring system is a low-cost camera based system that collects and transfers a time-series of images in real-time for automatic analysis. The new system is able to automatically count people, offering important insights on how society interacts with and values our beaches.

Chris Drummond, Senior Project Engineer at WRL says that a key advantage of the new imaging system is its comparably low cost.

“Coastal imaging monitoring systems have traditionally been costly to establish and generally beyond the resources of most Council projects.. Our new system is completely self-contained and can be easily installed on existing beach infrastructure such as on lifeguard towers, making it more accessible to local councils who can use the data to make well informed coastal management decisions,” says Drummond.

The new system combines state of the art machine learning with cutting edge image processing to capture data about what parts of the beach people are using and track changes to the shoreline. Breakthroughs in recent years in the fields of robotics and autonomous driving have led to significant progress in the use of artificial intelligence to automatically recognise people in images.  Machine learning models that are ‘trained’ to detect people have been further refined by the WRL team so that they are specifically designed to track beach users on our low-cost camera system.

WRL Principal Engineer and Manager Grantley Smith says that one of the key benefits of the WRL coastal monitoring system’s ability to count people on the beach is that it provides insights that are critical to running ‘the business of the beach’.

“Beaches are important assets to communities and it is crucial for councils to have confidence that they are allocating resources effectively to manage these assets. To do this, they need to know which beaches are being used, how they are being used and the various ways beaches and surrounding environments are being impacted by weather and human activity,” says Smith.Image: UNSW Water Research Laboratory

Data collected by the new coastal imaging systems is being used in a variety of ways. The Gold Coast attracts millions of visitors each year to its beaches, and the City of Gold Coast is using imaging insights to learn how the shoreline is changing, enabling future-focused decisions on how to keep beaches both accessible and aesthetically pleasing. Safety is also an important consideration, and their current coastal imaging systems are being updated with the new technology to enable detailed insights into how many people are visiting specific beaches and when peak times occur. As an example, this information could then be used to ensure that sufficient lifeguards are present to minimise risk to beachgoers.

At Ocean Beach on the New South Wales Central Coast, monitoring over the past year has revealed some remarkable insights. The beach consistently widened by 10 metres over the year amid storm term erosion during storms in June 2019 and February 2020. Furthermore, the system identified that over 20,000 people visited Ocean Beach throughout the year with the busiest month occurring in January 2020. Seasonal trends in beach visitation were also identified with four times more visits occurring during summer compared to winter, while midday and Sunday were the most popular times to visit.

Smith says that there are a wide range of potential uses for the system with economic, environmental and social benefits.

“The data collected can be used to help design coastal hazard plans, to produce cost-benefit analysis and to help with evidence-based decision making. We are currently in discussions about using the system to contribute to a research project looking at drownings on unpatrolled beaches, with the hope that increased knowledge on this topic will put measures in place to reduce risk and ultimately save lives.”

In the current COVID-19 crisis the system could also be used to help councils monitor and manage numbers of people on the beach and ensure physical distancing protocols are being followed.


Fore more information about the WRL BeachStat system please contact:
Chris Drummond  |  Senior Coastal Engineer  |


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