October 11, 2022
Above: One of the drone images shown at the Biennale exhibition in Milano in 2019, taken over the Kafue flats wetlands (photo credit: ATEC-3D ltd)
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt of the full post, which can be viewed at the ETH Zurich website. Please also note that the post was authored by both Fritz Kleinschroth, ETH Zurich, and Kawawa Banda, University of Zambia, who cannot be featured as an author because he is not a member of GLP.
The full paper "Drone imagery to create a common understanding of landscapes" (open access here) was recently published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.
In less than a decade, the use of drones to collect aerial imagery has shifted from the cutting-edge to a mainstream tool in research. Yet surprisingly, little is known about how different people around the world interpret pictures taken by drones in different contexts.
As part of the ETH Zurich-led DAFNE project, funded by the EU’s horizon 2020 program, and in collaboration with University of Zambia (UNZA), we had the pleasure and the privilege of collecting aerial imagery from a wide range of Zambian landscapes. The overall goal of the project was to build a decision-analytic framework to facilitate negotiations between water resource users within the water-energy-food-ecosystems-nexus. One of the many aspects of this was to use drone imagery to better understand water quality issues related to agricultural intensification and hydropower dams, for example manifested through mass-invasions of floating water hyacinths. Supported by Simon Spratley, a professional drone pilot and in tandem with a group of UNZA students, we travelled across the country and collected a diverse range of imagery for their MSc and PhD theses, as well as other research. The outcomes were pictures of surprising beauty, showing stunning bird’s-eye-views of highly diverse wetlands, rivers and agricultural landscapes. These images featured in our papers and project videos, some even making it to the Biennale in Milano, and exhibited as artwork. Yet, due to the COVID-pandemic, the DAFNE project had to end without us being able to physically share the images with stakeholders in Zambia, and ask them in person how they perceived them.
The reactions were unanimously positive. Initially people wanted to hang the posters on their walls, because they found them pretty. A followup response concerned the use of the information: farmers and public administrators talked about using this data to plan where to grow which crops, and resolve boundary issues with neighbours. Given that the images were already a few years old, stakeholders also thought it would be interesting to use the pictures for before-after comparisons of the rapidly changing landscapes. For the interpretation of the imagery, it turned out that different viewing angles were particularly useful. We had used two different drones, a rather professional one that systematically maps the ground at a straight angle at extremely high resolution, and one of those more commonly known video drones, typically used for filming and picture-taking at different angles from above. Interestingly, the latter produced images that were easier to interpret for all, independent of their previous experience working with aerial imagery.
Our project ended with a talk at University of Zambia, mostly to students of a remote sensing class. Not unexpectedly, their attitudes towards drones were extremely positive, and we sensed very high expectations towards this technology. For inclusive and critical future uses of drones, we probably need both regulations, and equitable access to using these novel technologies. But what it needs most is the enthusiasm that we experienced while travelling together in Zambia, when presenting a bird’s-eye view of the landscape to the people who live and work there.