TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WSAV) — Tybee Island is one of several coastal communities that have in recent years built sand dunes along its beaches to combat storm surge and natural erosion.

Researchers at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are now studying the man-made dunes — with the help of a drone and high-tech mapping technology — to determine if they really are the best solution.

“This is really the first large scale development of dunes as part of a beach restoration project,” explained Dr. Clark Alexander, director at the UGA Skidaway Institute.

“These dunes on Tybee Island were created as part of the renourishment for the island, and so there is an interest in understanding how created dunes perform here along the coast of Georgia,” Anderson said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has pumped thousands of tons of sand onto Tybee’s beaches every five to seven years for the past few decades to account for the influence of the Savannah River ship channel and natural erosion.

In the last renourishment, completed earlier this year, the Corps included some additional sand which the City of Tybee Island used to supplement the existing dune system.

“Those dunes will erode over time, but they’ll provide sand for the beaches, sand for islands that are further down along the longshore transport system,” Alexander said.

He says some parts of the beach, like the north and south ends, are more vulnerable to beach erosion.

The drone research will not only help further predict what areas to prioritize on Tybee, but provide other coastal communities with a “best practices” guide on monitoring their own dune systems.

“It’ll be a manual that people can use to monitor dune systems, not only in Georgia, but throughout the Southeast as dunes become a greater and greater tool in the coastal managers’ toolbox,” Alexander said.

On Friday, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography research technician Claudia Venherm and volunteers flew the drone in the areas around 6th Street and 2nd Avenue.

During each flight, the drone takes thousands of images. Geographical information software will then analyze the pictures and create a 3D model of the beach and dunes.

It will take four or five days for the drone to survey all of Tybee’s beaches.

By comparing the results of the surveys over time, researchers can make note of any changes.

The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography anticipates the project to run for three years with support from the City of Tybee Island. A grant from Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs the US Army Corps of Engineers will cover the $70,000/year cost.

Alexander hopes additional funding can be obtained to allow the project to run for the typical seven-year span between beach renourishments.