Free State University’s R11million grant for drone-based geological research

The Hans Merensky Foundation (HMF) has awarded R11million (about $760,000) to South Africa’s University of Free State, which will go towards drone-based geological imaging research programmes at one of its faculties.

The grant beneficiary will be the UFS Department of Geology’s Merensky Group for Aerial Geological Image Classification (MAGIC), which has said it will use the money for capital expenditure acquisitions such as survey drones and high-performance computers; as well as pay student bursaries and staff salaries, according to Dr Martin Clark, a lecturer in the department.

Dr Clark added that his group – which for now comprises Dr Clark as the principal investigator, a PhD student, two master’s students, and two honours students; with several postdoctoral research fellows to join soon – aims to develop drone-based geological imaging in South Africa, with specific emphasis on mineral and groundwater exploration activities.

“What makes me excited about this project is how the research impacts society,” Dr Clark said. “This includes developing geological imaging capacity in South African geologists with a fourth industrial revolution skillset, ensuring that they remain competitive in a global market.

“Drone-based geological imaging can be quicker, cheaper, and safer for collecting much of the initial information that informs more expensive exploration processes, such as drilling.

“Additionally, it is non-invasive, and has little to no impact on the environment during data collection. Drones can also, in terms of safety, collect data from unstable rock walls – historically, geologists would have to take those measurements themselves, with rock falls resulting in a significant number of deaths every year.”

Dr Martin Clark. Picture: University of Free State

Drone-based imaging has supported research initiatives in the Vredefort Dome before, Dr Clark said.

Approximately 120km south-west of Johannesburg, the Vredefort Dome is a representative part of a larger meteorite impact structure, also known as an astrobleme. Dating back 2,023 million years, it is the oldest astrobleme known on Earth; no wonder it has been a fascinating subject of research for geologists, whose methods and tools have been getting better since they started poking their noses into the dome’s rock structure almost a century ago.

Now that drone technology has entered the picture, researchers like Dr Clark are more hopeful of better results.

Drone technology is getting smarter for geological research with every new release, as its imaging payloads are getting sharper and more focussed. Take DJI’s M30 drone released last week for example; it comes with a 48-megapixel half inch CMOS sensor zoom camera with between 5X and 16X optical, and 200X digital zoom, a 12-megapixel wide-angle camera, 8k photo 4K/30 fps video resolution, and a laser rangefinder which can give the precise coordinates of objects up to 1,200 meters away.

The M30Therman also features an additional 640×512pixel radiometric thermal camera.

“Using drone-collected high-resolution images of meteorite impact melt rocks, along with field observations of how much and where foreign rock components were contained within (clasts), we could make a case for turbulent flow in the migration of impact melt material within the deep crust,” Dr Clark said, adding that three papers are currently underway, each predicated on drone imagery that enables new insights into geological processes or the ability to digitally translate geological information inside and outside the classroom.

The grant was signed over by the President of HMF, Dr Khotso Mokhele, making the UFS one of only three South African universities to be awarded such an investment by the foundation, apart from Stellenbosch University (for forestry research) and the University of Pretoria (which is researching on avocados).

Prof Francis Petersen (left) Dr Khotso Mokhele. Picture: University of Free State

The HMF’s objective is to “promote and assist in the development of the resources of South Africa and neighbouring territories – particularly such natural resources as soil, water, flora, and fauna – and to promote the health and welfare of the inhabitants; more specifically, through research, experimentation, and demonstration and through the correlation and application of scientific knowledge.”

UFS Rector and Vice Chancellor Professor Francis Petersen said his university was thankful for the grant and promised that they would also render the university’s maximum support to the research group to ensure it makes good on its capacity to deliver.

“For us as a university, research and the development of the next generation of scientists are critical,” said Professor Petersen. “This is part of our mandate. This project is one of those catalysts for the development of what the mandate is all about – research output, capacity building, and impact through our students and our research in a broader society.”

Several universities in South Africa have started using drones, but Dr Clark said the UFS stands apart as, with implements such as the high-performance computing cluster, very large drone-borne datasets can be resolved in record time. 

“The UFS also has a wealth of world-class researchers focused on topics such as farming and environmental management, who will be able to benefit from the drone infrastructure being established on campus. We are aiming to be the go-to geological drone imaging group in South Africa,” he said.


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