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Drones in Namibia: Nature conservation mapping, photos and videos

There is much talk on how to use drone mapping technology for nature conservation. However, projects with results that are applicable for both conservation land use management and wildlife conservation (such as animal counts) are few and far between. This past May, Drone Adventures teamed up with Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve and the Polytechnic of Namibia to carry out a two-week mapping mission to explore the variety of uses that drone mapping can offer nature conservation.

Nature conservation in Namibia

Researchers, local communities, governments and hundreds of NGO’s have been using new technologies to help them conserve the many natural wonders and animal species that must co-habit with the ever growing human population. Namibia is on the forefront of nature conservation its government – as well as a large number of private landowners, local communities and tourism companies – dedicate vast efforts to conserve the semi-arid savannahs and desert environments that make up 90% of the country’s surface.

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Trans- and interdisciplinary research initiative

Our mission was part of a trans- and interdisciplinary research initiative led by Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve in conjunction with the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Lausanne (EPFL) and the Polytechnic of Namibia. Our part of this initiative was to acquire imagery with light-weight drones and various cameras, including multi-spectral cameras, to produce up-to-date, high-resolution maps and models for data analysis. In line with Drone Adventures’ spirit, the initiative’s goal was to share the resulting maps and models as well as the knowledge on hard- and software use with all involved parties and the local community. In view of the vast mapping mission that lay before us and the many questions our research partners wanted to answer with their in-depth analysis, two Drone Adventures teams relayed each other, each on Namibian ground for a week, to fly our drones and process the thousands of images acquired…

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Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve

Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve is a local reserve managed by private landowners. Dr. Friedrich Reinhard, co-manager of the reserve and leader of the research initiative, hosted the Drone Adventures team for 8 days on his 10’000 ha reserve with a long list of areas to map in hand. His mapping needs for Kuzikus included:

  • Animal counts using drone technology
  • Drone mapping for sustainable land management and land health assessment

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Sharing knowledge at Polytechnic of Namibia

Namibia’s universities, such as the Polytechnic School of Namibia or UNAM (University of Namibia) prepare the engineers, researchers and tourism professionals of tomorrow to address the many challenges of nature conservation to preserve the country’s unique landscapes and wildlife, all the while using these resources to support the local economy through responsible tourism and farming. At their request, after hearing about the initiative led on Kuzikus, we led a half-day workshop bringing together engineers, professors, students, researchers and government specialists. The goal of this workshop was to introduce the basics of drone mapping technology and our first experiences made on Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve in the days before hand. We shared our knowledge on hard- and software, and our various mapping experiences, but the excitement and interest of the workshop reached its peak during the flight demonstration that proved how easy and accessible drone mapping technology has become.

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Drone mapping at Gobabeb Research & Training Center in the Namib desert

The Gobabeb Research and Training Centre is an internationally recognized center for dry land training and research, located in the Namib Desert. Gobabeb’s mission is to be a catalyst for gathering, disseminating and implementing understanding of arid environments. With many specialized research projects, Gobabeb was the perfect place to add another dimension to our Namibian mission: testing how drones and photogrammetry software can handle the difficult environment of one of the driest deserts on earth all the while producing meaningful results. We spent 2 days at Gobabeb. The first day was used for providing geo-referenced orthomosaics and 3D models for an ongoing research project on the endemic !Nara plant, distributed over long corridors in the dune valleys. A total of 3 flights over the valley, with both RGB and RE (Red Edge) cameras provided a 5km long, 500 meter wide corridor map with enough detail to easily geo-locate and assess the !Nara plants. Very much like our days in Windhoek, the second day was used to host a workshop for the researchers of Gobabeb, introducing the elements of drone mapping to them and sharing discussions on how this technology can help their research projects.

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First answer, more questions

While this first nature conservation mission was able to test the use of drones for nature conservation purposes, the initial results lead to many more questions. During this mission, many additional possibilities of use have been determined, not only on Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve but also at the Gobabeb Research & Training Center. The possibility of using NIR and multi-spectral sensors to compliment terrestrial research for rare plant species (such as the Welwitschia or !Nara plants endemic to the Namib desert) offers not only additional research possibilities but also more efficient surveying of larger areas that are difficult to access on foot or car.

Our goal is to find additional funding to return to Namibia in the spring of 2015. A second mission to the same areas would enable follow-up on research and provide updated maps of areas already surveyed during this first mission as well as map new areas in the Namib desert to produce high-resolution maps and indices for the Gobabeb researchers.

In the meantime, researchers at Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve, EPFL and UNAM are hard at work analyzing the 350Gb of data that we collected during our short stay.  As we gather more concrete results in animal counting and identification, plant health analysis and land management we’ll be posting follow-up stories, hopefully inspiring further research and bringing drone-mapping technology into the hands of conservation leaders.

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The mission in numbers:

14 days
2 teams
4 DA members on Namibian ground
4 local researchers involved
91 flights
30 % of Kuzikus making 3000 ha mapped
5 different cameras used (RGB, NIR, RE, Multi-spectral
14963 images acquired
45 hours of mapping
384 hours of processing data

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During this mission we took almost 15,000 areal images with 91 eBee drone flights, generating 350Gb of data that took our friends at Pix4D and EPFL-LASIG weeks to process!  Analysis of the data is still ongoing, here’s a sneak peak at one of the zones that we mapped around Gobabeb:

We call this dataset “The three deserts”; the dry Kuiseb riverbed has enough water during the year to support lush green trees on its dry shores, and creates a natural border between the red sand dunes of the Namib desert to the south-west and the rocky yellow expanse of the to the north-east.  As an added bonus, have a look at this video fly-through of the dataset!

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Sonja Betschart is a Drone Adventurer and Chief Marketing Officer at Pix4D... read more

Adam Klaptocz is the founder of Drone Adventures.. read more

Drone Adventures puts together the people that know drones best with the people that need them the most... read more


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Presented work at IROS 2018 (Part 1 of 3)
November 12, 2018

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