Virunga’s New Aerial GIS Capability

I recently returned from a two week visit to Virunga National Park headquarters in Rumangabo. The purpose of my trip was to install an aerial GIS camera system in the park’s Cessna 182 surveillance aircraft. I would like to use this opportunity to tell the story of how the project went and some of the ways it will benefit Virunga.

Installing the GPS unit in the cockpit

Installing the GPS unit in the cockpit

The camera pod that is tethered to the bottom of the plane

The camera pod that is tethered to the bottom of the plane

The camera pod installed

The camera pod installed

The aerial camera system that we installed uses a Canon 5D Mark III camera that is tethered to a Garmin aviation GPS unit. In between each device is a coupler that lets the two pieces of electronics “talk” to each other. Using a preloaded flight plan on the GPS unit, we would fly to a specific area and the camera would automatically begin taking pictures when the GPS registered the coordinates of our target location. Unfortunately, the steep, mountainous terrain of D.R. Congo creates some data collection challenges. Areas with significant elevation changes make data collection difficult because the system is suited best to situations where the plane maintains a constant elevation above the ground. Changes in elevation from picture to picture make comparisons more difficult because the perspective changes accordingly.

Clockwise: cockpit view of the system being used, making exterior adjustments to the system, one of our first GIS-linked photographs.

Clockwise: cockpit view of the system being used, making exterior adjustments to the system, one of our first GIS-linked photographs.

After a few flights to test and calibrate the camera system, I began training Jean de Dieu Wathaut. He compiles much of the wildlife data recorded by park rangers and has shown a keen interest in learning GIS. Jean de Dieu turned out to be the perfect candidate, and aside from a few miscommunications (I speak very little French), the learning process went smoothly.

GIS Team: Methode, Jean de Dieu, me, Chief Warden, Emmanuel de Merode

GIS Team: Methode, Jean de Dieu, me, Chief Warden, Emmanuel de Merode

I cannot stress how valuable this method of data capture is to Virunga. Trying to maintain border integrity of an area larger than the state of Delaware, the lack of navigable roads, and rebel occupation surrounding the park all contribute to a nearly impossible task of border protection while on the ground. By analyzing dangerous areas from above, rangers will not have to be put in harm’s way unnecessarily. The system is also able to capture data far more efficiently, saving precious time and resources.

I want to thank everyone who donated to this project. Your support has been critical. I will be reporting on the project over the coming years and anticipate being able to share many more success stories.

3 Comments

  1. P. Lucinian July 20, 2016 Reply

    Great idea but piloted aircraft are expensive to keep flying (and so are the pilots) and flight time is limited. The use of fixed wing unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs (aka drones) to perform the same valuable service should be the longer term goal. More flight time is possible and with less risk to human life (the air crew). The UAVs can be outfitted with other types of sensors beside just visual cameras such as infrared cameras and even spectrometers.

    An additional benefit is the park rangers can be trained to maintain and operate the drones giving them and other local villagers, especially the younger generation, a chance to learn exciting new technological skills that they can use to earn a living, even start their business.

  2. Tatjana dzambazova April 1, 2017 Reply

    Agree that drones are cheaper and drone captures can be useful for many purposes even though the cameras are not of the same quality (25 vs 4 megapixels). ! I am actually off to the park tomorrow and am bringing the latest DJI Mavic pro hoping to do some test flights, see if they are useful for the purpose they need and train few of the friends there!

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