Tell us about yourself and your background
My name is Debbie Jewitt and I am a Conservation Scientist employed by Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, the conservation organisation for the province (state). I live in Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. I obtained my PhD investigating land cover and climate change threats to natural habitats in KwaZulu-Natal. This entails understanding the environmental drivers that shape and create the diverse landscapes we have in the province, understanding the global threats posed to these landscapes and then to find solutions to mitigate against these threats. I enjoy finding solutions to problems and using new technologies to do so.
How did you get started in the drone industry?
The opportunities provided by drone or UAV technologies offered an exciting new way to collect data on habitats and species in a faster, cheaper and more efficient manner. The conservation sector generally has limited budgets, so I set out to investigate if the use of drones could better facilitate conservation monitoring. Our preliminary results are very hopeful. The images obtained from the drones have allowed us to successfully map habitats, monitoring the success of herbicide applications to control unwanted plant species, map fire burn scars, check power lines for bird collisions, check erosion control features and create digital elevation models of our Protected Areas. Drones were very successful in counting difficult to monitor species such as the cliff nesting Cape Vulture, where population estimates almost doubled because the drone imagery allowed a more accurate count of the nesting birds. I would like to investigate the use of drones to count threatened species such as cycads or dangerous species such as crocodiles.
Drone monitoring cliff nesting at Cape Vulture
I am currently completing my Remote Pilots Licence (RPL), a requirement of the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) to be able to fly drones in South Africa. Further, my organisation will also have to receive an Operators Certificate from the SACAA before we meet the legal requirements to be able to operate drones for conservation purposes. Therefore, for all our work to-date, we have partnered with other organisations to collect our data. It has been stimulating to partner with other people and organisations who are passionate about conservation and the aviation industry. I am learning to fly using a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced. However, we have tested a range of drones in our project such as the Sensefly eBee and 3DR Solo drones.
What do you like about being in the UAV industry?
What I like most about the UAV industry is that it is a disruptive technology – it disrupts the normal way of doing things. In developing countries such as in Africa, it offers solutions to many challenges faced by these countries. For instance, drones are successfully being used in Rwanda to deliver medicine to people in rural areas where the road infrastructure is limited or impassable in the rainy season. In conservation we can save time, money and more safely collect data on dangerous animals with less risk of injury or loss of human lives. Similarly drones can be used in anti-poaching initiatives.
Our province forms part of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots (the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany hotspot). It is good to know that I am helping to conserve this incredible biodiversity for future generations and that drone technology is helping to make that possible.
What excites you most about the potential for women in the industry?
With the drone industry being a relatively new industry there is a lot of opportunity for women to get involved without facing the typical stereotypes of either the conservation or aviation industries. Career opportunities in drones and conservation are many and varied from direct conservation initiatives to photography and tourism.
What You’ve Learned:
What has been your most significant ‘lightbulb’ moment since you entered the industry?
The capabilities of drones are amazing and they are getting easier and safer to fly all the time. However I think that the associated software to plan and analyse data collected from drones is where the greatest advances will come in future. Automated object identification and counting will make conservation monitoring much easier.
What have you learned you wish you had known when you got started?
The legislation surrounding drone use in South Africa is very stringent and is currently limiting to entrepreneurial business opportunities both from the cost and length of time to be legally compliant. However, the legislation will be reviewed in future, driven primarily by the needs of the drone industry, so hopefully the more opportunities will open up in the future.
Is there a tip you learned you would like to share with other women in the industry?
Yes! Don’t be afraid to ask questions! From my experience I have had tremendous support from people in the industry, especially other women.
What’s the best way for W&D readers connect with you?
The final word:
Biodiversity conservation is facing enormous challenges in today’s world and strong, dedicated women are encouraged to stand up and make a difference!