Dr. Baldwin explained that increases in sargassum are linked to a continuously warming planet. In recent years, influxes have not only increased in quantity but also in terms of frequency, now occurring up to eight months out of the year, oftentimes with critical marine life such as sea turtles and dolphins entrapped. With piles of beached sargassum up to 3 meters high, these rotting masses pose a health hazard to the coastal marine ecosystem ( like seagrasses, coral reefs and mangroves) and beach visitors alike. However, as she explained, if the sargassum could be harvested while still fresh, it could become part of the $13 billion global commercial seaweed market, thereby helping to offset the losses in tourism and fishery revenues, critical to livelihoods in the Caribbean. To inform clean-up operations and attract business entrepreneurs to take up the challenge of valorizing sargassum, it would be critical to be able to accurately measure and monitor the amount of raw material available.
Recognizing the time sensitivity of removal operations, Dr. Baldwin set out to create a surveying and estimation workflow that could be applied by teams working with her across the Caribbean. As an already-certified Part 107 pilot, drone technology seemed a natural fit.