Friday marked the third consecutive week that Manatee County workers have met at Bayfront Park to get drone footage of Longboat Key’s gulf-front red tide conditions.
“They’re taking pictures for us and doing some video for us and for them, so that they can track conditions here,” Town Manager Tom Harmer said.
On Friday morning, Manatee County Government section manager Lea Harper, buildings and facilities technology coordinator Hjalmar Pachas, utilities locates tech Alex Harkinson and contracted senior multimedia production specialist Melissa Matisko flew two different drones: a DJI Mavic 2 Pro and a DJI Matrice 300 RTK.
Harper said the Matrice features an H20 camera, which has thermal imaging and shoots in 4K resolution.
“What we love about it is it’s got the most amazing zoom you have ever seen on any piece of equipment ever,” Harper said. “It can go so far out beyond what we actually are able to do, which is when we’re restricted to our visual line of sight, this comes in handy because we can be at the very edge of our line of our sight and then just zoom all the way out to get an even further reach.”
The battery lasts about 25 minutes on the Mavic 2 Pro whereas it lasts for about 55 minutes on the Matrice, according to Matisko.
The group uses the drones to get a combination of videos and photos of the conditions.
“Depending on kind of how bad it is, is kind of how we determine,” Harper said. “If the area is looking pretty good while we’re up in the area, then we just kind of take pictures. We don’t really need to spend time with the video because video is so much data to process.
“If we do notice that we’ve got a patch of biomass and dead fish, then we’ll go ahead and we’ll turn on video, and kind of record that patch and show where it is in reference to the beaches.”
While the beach across the street from Bayfront Park did not have much of a dead fish accumulation on Friday morning, the conditions caused coughing and there was an odor.
“A way to explain to people the whole smell and the (dead) fish is think about if you left a sandwich in your car,” Matisko said. “Like, (you) went to breakfast and you got a sandwich and you left it sitting in your car all day.
“When you open that door the next day, do you know how potent that’s going to smell? And then you think this in like 102-degree humidity.”
Twice per week, the team surveys five different areas in Manatee County: Bayfront Park, Longboat Pass, Bean Point, Tidy Island and Emerson Point Preserve.
Harper said the team fills out a report based on the conditions.
“That’s just basically saying, ‘How dense is the debris in this area? Do you notice any irritation as the observers? Do you notice any throat irritation? Are you coughing? Is there a smell?’” Harper said. “And, we just kind of write all the up in a report, we attach the photos to that report, and we send it over to our emergency operations and our core team, so everyone kind of knows where we’re at.”
Harper said it is required for the team to abide by FAA regulations.
“Everybody here is an FAA-certified pilot,” she said.
Harper said the group submits videos on an as-needed basis.
“(The county has) added Longboat Key to their drone review for at least the north half of the island, but if they identify a large area of dead floating fish in the Gulf, they have these boats that will go out,” Harmer said. “But, they said they haven’t found the right conditions to send those boats out.”
At the end of July, Harmer said Manatee County has purchased three additional specialty boats that have mechanical equipment for the purpose of cleanup. It will take several weeks before the boats arrive.
Matisko said drones can provide a better perspective from the air than being in a boat or standing on a beach.
“When you put a drone in the air, you see a bigger picture,” Matisko said. “So the scope of, ok, there might be dead fish there, but how far does it extend?”
Longboat Key allocates $50,000 each year for red tide cleanup. However, the town’s policy requires three to four tide cycles and a moderate level of dead fish accumulation before the town initiates a clean-up of a specific area.
Harmer said the town is the only local government in Sarasota and Manatee counties that does fish kill clean up in canals.
Despite residents’ frustration with the conditions, Harper said the reaction has been positive to the drone program.
“We’re happy to (help) while we have the program, and they’re part of our county, so it makes sense we would be able to provide that information for them,” Harper said. “What it’s doing is it’s kind of getting them what they need to gear up and where to position everything as far as equipment goes if they’re going to do their beach rakes and everything.”