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Eyes in the sky.

When pursuing science, sometimes you need to get out of the lab and into the field. For the 2014 Land Rover bursary recipient, Mark Allan, this would mean a technologically-assisted trip to the Alps, complete with drone cameras and a hair-raising helicopter ride

A waterproof drone had not been something my team had considered before setting off for the European Alps. But as I dove into the lake in front of the Bionnassay glacier to rescue the now submerged device, hindsight struck. Although this wasn't the first drone-related mishap we had dealt with, it was certainly the coldest. Luckily, the unmanned aerial vehicle had suffered only minimal damage and we had now learnt another lesson about flying drones in high mountain environments the hard way.

Today the European Alps are synonymous with tourism, exploration and science. They attract millions of visitors every year. Yet the public's fascination with the Alps is relatively new. Until the 18th century, it was believed that dragons lived amongst the seemingly inaccessible peaks. Travellers crossing alpine passes asked to be blindfolded so they did not have to witness the wild and abhorrent places. It was only between the late 1600s and the early 1900s, when young British gentlemen engaged on the Grand Tour became captivated by the sublime beauty of the European mountain landscape that the Alps were transformed.

There is an extensive archive of imagery and accounts from the time of the Grand Tour through to the current day. These common vistas and perspectives present a rich and largely untapped resource for scientists who are interested in the way that the alpine landscape has evolved over the past four centuries.

Among the highest and most impressive peaks lie glaciers which are retreating and thinning in response to changes in the Earth's climate system. Temperatures in the Alps have increased twice as much as the global average since the late 19th century. As ice is removed, an environment that is particularly susceptible to rapid change is exposed. My team was particularly interested in understanding how the slopes above and around these ice masses are changing as glaciers and permafrost melt.

We decided to combine high-resolution. 3D modelling with historic imagery to understand how the slopes above and around alpine glaciers are changing. In particular, we wanted to accurately quantify the magnitude and frequency of landslides, and link their spatial distribution across the slopes to previous ice extent.

To that end, we made use of an innovative photogrammetry technique called 'Structure from Motion', which is particularly suitable for the alpine environment as the only data you need are plenty of photographs. By identifying common features across overlapping images captured from a variety of perspectives, these features can be plotted as points in their three dimensional space relative to other matched features. This process generates a 'Point Cloud'. By repeating the surveys multiple times, these clouds can be compared to one another to understand which areas of the slope have changed.

Why was a drone required for our surveys? The slopes that we were interested in were a combination of gullies, overhangs, ridges and flutes, all of which are difficult to see over and around from a ground position. And if we can't see a feature in a photograph, we can't model it. By contrast, the drone allowed us to lift the camera above our heads and see above, over and into areas that we could not otherwise capture. The drone gave us a unique perspective, as well as the ability to capture stable imagery at a faster pace than was possible on foot.

When I started my PhD, I knew that I would be working for a period of time in the Alps. However, when we explored the idea of applying for the Land Rover bursary to support our research, it hadn't quite hit me exactly what sort of commitment we would be making.

It was only when I was on the homeward train to Newcastle with colleagues Dr Mike Lim and Thomas Shaw, after what felt like a good first interview at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in London, that Mike asked me, 'What if we get the bursary?'

I hadn't thought of this outcome. Viewing your own work as an adventure that others would want to support felt new to me and I hadn't seriously contemplated the idea that our project might be selected. To my surprise, we were awarded the bursary and I suddenly found myself planning a three-month expedition across the Alps.

Our route started at the Mont Blanc massif. As we approached the range in our laden vehicle, the higher peaks appeared above the horizon and didn't stop growing until we were at their feet. You can plan, prepare and practice for as long as you want, but it's not until you see the mountains and the glaciers that you appreciate the enormity of the task in hand.

Without further ado, and after fewer hours of sleep than we had hoped for, we set out for our first glacier, the Mer de Glace. This 12 kilometre meandering river of ice is one of the massif's most iconic features. To access its surface, we climbed down a series of ladders and rails below Montenvers' rack railway station. The approach sounds straightforward, but throw in my irrational fear of heights and the weight of my rucksack tugging me away from the ladders, and it becomes a different tale.

Upon reaching the icy surface, we donned our crampons and marched to our first site. We had chosen this location because it is a slope that has been painted, sketched and photographed for hundreds of years, creating a fantastic record of change in ice elevation over a long period of time.

When it comes to working on a glacier and its attendant slopes, there are a few hazards that you are constantly aware of. Primarily, a glacier is never a quiet place. If you take a few moments to enjoy its serenity, the silence is inevitably interrupted with the sound of a fusillade of rocks and by the glacier creaking. Safety gear is essential, and we always carried helmets, harnesses and ropes, as well as gear for a crevasse rescue.

During the summer, glacier travel is a little easier at the lower altitudes as the crevasses are not covered by snow. However, as you travel further up, crevasses become increasingly difficult to detect. They are frequently hidden under thin bridges of blown snow that are incapable of supporting the weight of a person. Thankfully, our team was spared any serious glacierrelated injuries, suffering nothing more than a couple of twisted ankles and knees.

We worked on six glaciers in the Mont Blanc range. Each location had unique challenges that required a slightly different approach. In some cases, the drone alone did not suffice: as useful as it was for collecting imagery from a unique perspective, our particular unmanned aerial vehicle was a little cumbersome. Carrying it for several hours from the Land Rover to a glacier was not always the easiest thing to do. On days when we chose not to fly the drone, we took photographs on foot.

Two sites--the Bossons and Pre de Bard--were both accessible by a rugged off-road track. On these approaches the Land Rover Defender came into its own and we were able to spend more time in the field collecting data. I had the confidence to shift the vehicle into low range and allow the gears do the work of pulling all of our equipment up a steep boulder-laden track and across a waterfall to within a stone's throw of the glacier. Upon arrival, it was a simple case of setting up our base GPS station on the roof of the vehicle, and walking no more than 15 minutes to the first site.

On other occasions, we were fortunate to have a helicopter placed at our disposal. The pilot removed a door and three seats, and attached a rope to the floor. Then it dawned on me that I was about to attach my climbing harness, sit on the edge of the open-sided helicopter and fly up a valley. At that moment, my acrophobia intensified. Nevertheless, once airborne I focused on my making sure the cameras were pointing in the right direction and that the pilot was flying at the correct height and distance. In the end, I forgot all about my fear and loved every second of the flight.

The helicopter, like the drone, had distinct advantages and disadvantages. We were able to cover an entire valley in a matter of minutes from a fantastic perspective. But given the speed we were travelling, the overlap between images was significantly reduced when compared with images we'd taken from the ground and from the drone.

Over the course of three months we covered almost 2,000 kilometres, visited seven countries, and took in some of the world's most impressive mountain passes. We collected more data across over a longer period of time and at a greater number of sites than would have been possible without the bursary. Most pleasingly, our research has led to some promising first-year results.


Our alpine drone was a six-armed rotary platform powered by two 6,000mAh LiPo batteries, giving 15 minutes flying time between charges. The drone needed to take-off and land on a flat surface and when none were available, the roof of the Land Rover Defender provided us with a stable launch and landing pad

Underneath the drone, we added a camera attached to a three-axis, brushless gimbal. This provided an unrestricted 360[degrees] view for the camera operator. Our drone had dual control: the pilot focused on operating the drone, and the camera operator captured the required imagery. To that end, the under slung camera fed a live stream to the operator's small screen.

Once the drone locked on to a GPS signal, it was able to hold itself in a reasonably stationary position. If the connection with the pilot was lost, the drone would automatically bring itself to the position it took off from and land. It worked well, however, we found ourselves battling to retain control whenever the wind speed increased.

Mark Allan is a PhD student at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. His research focuses on landslides in the European Alps, Mark and his team were the recipients of the 2014 Land Rover bursary with theRGS-IBG. To apply for the 2015bursary, visit Deadline for entries is 30 November.
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Title Annotation:EXPLORE; trip to European Alps
Comment:Eyes in the sky.(EXPLORE)(trip to European Alps)
Author:Allan, Mark
Article Type:Travel narrative
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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