Real time laser mapping for monitoring coastal erosion and rockfall

In by Nicholas Beaumont


3D Laser Mapping, a global laser scanning technology provider and Durham University have created an innovative monitoring system to provide real-time 3D data on coastal cliff erosion. The project is part of a KTP (Knowledge Transfer Partnership), a scheme funded by Innovate UK, which has a track record, improving businesses competitiveness, productivity and performance by accessing the knowledge and expertise available within UK Universities and Colleges.


The project aims to try to understand the processes of coastal erosion by looking at projected increases in sea level and stormy weather. Understanding the nature and mechanisms of cliff erosion is of vital importance to predicting the likely future movement of the coastline. Research on eroding coastlines has been limited by the need for surveys of coastal areas, which are restricted to periods of low tides each month.

The aim of the research project is to understand the process through which wave erosion at the base of the cliffs causes undercutting of the cliff slope, resulting in an unstable cliff and failure of material into the sea. Whilst this process may at first glance appear straight forward, research by Durham University over the last decade has shown that this understanding is largely anecdotal. The linkage between waves and erosion evolves gradually through time, and is one that responds to a wide range of factors, and not just the action of waves alone.



The project seeks to take advantage of uniquely high-resolution, 3D data being continually captured, to generate unprecedented detail on the changes experienced at cliffs. The 3D Laser Mapping SiteMonitor system automatically schedules the capture and analysis of 3D laser scan data in parallel with environmental monitoring data. The seaside town of Whitby now has one of – if not the most – intensively monitored rock faces in the world.

The aim of the project is to provide constant and frequent measurement of the cliff face, to allow changes resulting from rockfall to be recorded and analysed in real-time.

The system is designed to scan the cliff face 24 hours a day at 30 minute intervals. Within each scan measurements of the cliff face are taken at approximately 10 cm intervals, generating over 2 million points per scan. Whilst this data capture is itself uniquely innovative, the analysis of such a large volume of information presents significant challenges. To overcome this, the system streams data live from Whitby to Durham, where new algorithms have been developed to process the 3D data to extract rockfall volumes in real-time.

Using these results, the project is designed to tackle the challenge of precisely monitoring coastal cliff erosion and gain a new understanding from this. For example, it is known that many landslides and rockfall are preceded by precursors, such as smaller-scale movements or smaller rockfall, yet capturing data with sufficient resolution and frequency has up until now not been possible. The intention of this analysis is to investigate these processes with a view to both better forecasting erosion, and also assessing whether such precursors can be used as warnings for future rockfall.

The implications of the research is to move beyond Whitby and the UKs coasts. The more usual location of 3D Laser Mapping’s SiteMonitor system is in some of the world’s largest open pit mines, where rockfall and slope failure presents a significant challenge for sustaining mine productivity. The insight into the fundamental mechanics of how rockfall evolves, gained from the research at the cliffs in Whitby, is designed to be transferrable to these settings and enhance the reliability of slope failure early warning systems.

The help of the local community has been key in enabling the infrastructure for this project, and with plans to soon make the findings available through an open access website, everyone involved will be able to see the results as they happen.

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