University of Free State secures US$0.75m grant from HMF to advance its drone imaging

SOUTH AFRICA – The University of Free State (UFS) has received an R11 million (US$0.75m) grant from the Hans Merensky Foundation (HMF) to advance geological drone imaging in South Africa.

Dr Khotso Mokhele, president of HMF, recently signed the multimillion-rand five-year research grant agreement with the UFS.

The research grant funding was made by the Merensky group for Aerial Geological Image Classification (MAGIC) at UFS.

Merensky research projects are currently limited to three South African universities – Stellenbosch University (for forestry research), the University of Pretoria (for avocados), and now the UFS.

According to UFS Department of Geology lecturer Dr Martin Clark, the grant to MAGIC will be used to support research programmes, including student bursaries, staff salaries, capital expenditure acquisitions such as high-performance computers, and the drones the project uses.

Clark notes the group aims to develop drone-based geological imaging in SA, with specific attention to mineral and groundwater exploration endeavours.

“What makes me excited about this project is how the research impacts society. This includes developing geological imaging capacity in South African geologists with a 4IR [fourth industrial revolution] skillset, ensuring they remain competitive in a global market,” added Clark.

Clark is also of the opinion that many industries will be able to see for themselves how this technology can improve their businesses.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Clark notes drone-based imaging has supported research initiatives in the Vredefort Dome.

“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.”

He adds three papers are under way, 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 research group, with Clark as the principal investigator, consists of one PhD student, two master’s students, and two honours students, with several post-doctoral research fellows to follow soon.

Although several universities in the country have started using drones, the UFS has significant support to grow drone applications, he points out. With assets such as the high-performance computing cluster, very large drone-borne datasets can be resolved in record time.

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