For Safer Coastal Living, Thank Engineers

Drones, AI buoys, and composite-based sensors are providing protection against natural disasters

3 October 2018

Those who live along a coastline or vacation there have the privilege of access to activities such as fishing, surfing, and swimming. Mother Nature can turn those coastal regions into dangerous places, however. Threats can come in the form of flash floods, hurricanes, and tropical storms.

More than a billion people live in low-lying coastal regions, according to World Ocean Review. Those people have to contend with natural disasters and face environmental dangers such as higher tides, lower shorelines, and heightened flood risks. Over the years, engineers have completed projects that make coastal living much safer, such as building effective seawalls and storm drains.

Thanks to today’s technology, there are new ways to protect residents who live in coastal areas. Here are a few.


Some coastal towns have devoted significant resources to preventing shark attacks. They’ve tried nets, electronic devices and cullings, but with few successful results. The Australian government is now using drones outfitted with image-identification software. The unmanned aerial vehicles can pinpoint sharks with 90 percent accuracy, compared with human spotters in a plane, who can accurately identify a shark only about 25 percent of the time.

There are times when drone technology is the only logical resource available for use in areas where major utility services have been damaged or disabled. The technology also lessens the need to expose first responders to danger. In 2015 the U.S. government approved the use of 23 ground, 21 aerial, and seven maritime-based drone operations for 43 disasters in 13 countries.

Engineers are developing better ones to monitor and respond to catastrophic events.


The Clever Buoy uses sonar and artificial intelligence to identify objects in the water and relay warnings to personnel on land. Floating on the water, the system uses multibeam sonar transducers mounted on the ocean floor along with detection software. It sends out signals that bounce off the waterborne object, and it measures the animal’s or object’s size, distance, and movement.

Researchers also are studying whether the technology can protect people without harming marine life.


The United States has more than 161,000 kilometers of levees, of which the federal government operates 3,400 kilometers. Roughly half the U.S. population lives near a levee. A growing population means that more of the levees are prone to flooding, because municipalities cannot meet their drainage needs. Additionally, rising water tables and aging dams and levees threaten the integrity of nearby roads and rail tunnels. Around the world, however, engineers have developed amazing structures that protect the population from this hazard, such as Japan’s US $2 billion underground antiflood system, England’s Thames Barrier, and the Netherlands’ Oosterscheldekering dams and storm-surge barriers.


Engineers have developed an innovative device using samarium nickelate (SNO), a composite material. It detects some of the faintest electrical fields in the ocean. Researchers say the device mimics nature and will have many useful applications. The innovative electronic sensor mirrors the ability of sharks to detect miniscule electrical fields. Engineers envision the device as an effective submarine sensor for tracking marine life, man-made maritime objects, and other elements that produce faint electric signals.

Engineers are unsure about the future effects of climate change, such as sea- level rise, which creates an air of uncertainty for coastal regions.

The threat the changes present has led engineers to place more focus on designing innovative structures that can withstand worst-case scenarios, such as dams and barriers that can endure flooding and other natural disasters.

Every day, skilled professionals protect coastal populations from threatening natural occurrences.

Ryan Ayers has been a consultant for Fortune 500 companies within industries such as information technology and big data.

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