New Zealand drone team braves Antarctica to Africa to aid conservation efforts

By Jamie Morton science jamie morton@nzherald co nz

From Antarctica to Africa, AUT scientists carry out cutting-edge mapping projects to aid conservation effort.

A team of Kiwi scientists have taken their cutting-edge drone technology from Antarctica to Africa, pioneering a new field of research that could ultimately boost New Zealand conservation efforts.

Soon after surveying vegetation in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys this year, the team from the Auckland University of Technology were in the arid deserts of Namibia, toiling in temperatures of 40C.

Their work is helping advance the use of drones in conservation and ecology - an evolving area of science that has already helped collect stocktakes of plant ecosystems in vast areas of New Zealand forest and wetlands.

Camping out in freezing conditions in Antarctica, the team operated a 2.5m-wide fixed-wing drone along with another propeller-driven craft to make aerial scans of three protected areas - the Dry Valleys, Botany Bay and the area around Captain Robert Scott's former hut - so the environmental impact of humans could be better understood.

They created this baseline picture using the same concept developed earlier in New Zealand, where masses of images collected from the drones were pieced together to render high-definition, three-dimensional profiles.

The drones were equipped with an array of cameras, including several specially modified to capture different electro-magnetic, or spectral, signatures reflected from the plants below.

Such was the cold that the drones required thermal underwear to keep warm.

In April, they encountered the opposite problem when the extreme heat made it nearly impossible to operate in the Namib Desert, stretching 2000km along the Atlantic coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa.

Their focus there was one of the most unique plant species on the planet, the Welwitschia mirabilis.

Part of a family that has existed since South Africa and South America were joined as part of the supercontinent Gondwana, the plant is found only in the dry water channels in the Namib.

The AUT scientists flew an eight-bladed multi-rotor X8 drone to collect thousands of photos and build a 3D map of the area, encompassing all the plants within it and gaining resolutions of less than 1cm.

They used a multi-spectral camera on the drone, along with a hand-held hyperspectral instrument on the ground, to characterise the spectral reflectance from the Welwitschia and other plants.

"Because this is one of the most unique plants on earth, it is very important that it is protected," said Professor Len Gillman of AUT's School of Science. Colleagues Professor Steve Pointing, Dr Barbara Bollard-Breen and Ashray Doshi accompanied him.

The work wasn't easy - some days began at 2.30am and, at times, surface temperatures reached 68C.

"Most people take time out in the middle of the day to avoid the heat, but we worked right through, so it was a bit like Antarctica in the sense that we worked our butts off the whole time."

Gillman said the drone techniques they had refined overseas would ultimately improve the work they were doing back home - building up a huge library of spectral signatures of New Zealand plants.

Meanwhile, the team flies out today for their next adventure - a survey in Australia's remote Kimberley region.

- NZ Herald

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