Dragonfly-drone project needs public support

The blackwinged flutterer

Do you want to give an early Christmas present to a researcher who is passionate about dragonflies? Then consider supporting a crowdfunding project that paves the way for a project using drones to photograph and identify dragonfly species found around the wetlands of Mozambique and the lakes of Uganda. If successful, it will be the first time that drone technology is used to sample anything other than mammals and birds.

This slightly out-of-the-box research project is the brainchild of Dr John Simaika, a research fellow of the Department of Soil Science at Stellenbosch University and postdoctoral researcher at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, and Dr Paolo Paron, also of IHE Delft.

Their crowdfunding project on the Kickstarter platform will run until Friday December 22, and is called Drones and dragons: tech for assessing wetland health.

The overall goal of the project is to assess the state of wetland areas in the two African countries.

“We are trying this fairly unconventional fundraising method, because we do not think that traditional scientific funding platforms are geared towards projects of this kind,” says Dr Simaika, co-author of a book that tells how to use dragonflies to assess the state of South African wetlands and rivers.

What needs to be funded?

The project team already has the drones needed to fly with, but are missing one crucial piece of equipment: a 100mm prime lens for the Sony Alpha camera.

They are also raising funds to cover their running costs, consumables and travelling expenses. They hope to visit Uganda’s major lakes and Mozambique’s wetlands twice over the course of the next two years, to take note of how the dragonfly variety differs from season to season.

Why photograph dragonflies?

“Dragonflies are large insects that are relatively easy to spot and to identify in the field, and are excellent indicators of water quality and freshwater health,” explains Dr Simaika.

“Their presence provides tell-tale information about the state of the environment, because some species are only found in undisturbed areas, while others are able to adapt to changes that are brought on by poor land management practices or human development.”

Drones will be used to take footage of dragonflies, while image recognition software will allow the researchers to count and identify the different species. “This avoids having someone sit for hours to review footage and count insects manually,” explains Dr Simaika.

“Areas not easily accessed by foot, such as waterfalls or vegetation in wetlands, can be surveyed using the drones,” says Dr Simaika.

“Surveys can be repeated in the same areas thanks to the built-in GIS system in the drones. Because the footage is being captured electronically, the data can be uploaded, archived, shared and re-analysed not only for the presence of dragonflies but other things like plant structure and health, and land cover change.”

For more information, contact Dr Simaika on simaikaj@sun.ac.za