Over a period of three months this summer, Jerome Mayaud conducted fieldwork in Namibia to investigate the effects of dryland vegetation on wind erosion for his DPhil. A novel aspect of the work included mapping vegetation patterns and dune morphology using a cheap, portable quadcopter - or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) - equipped with a lightweight GoPro camera. By taking several hundreds of photos at different heights and angles, three-dimensional digital elevation models (DEMs) can be created using sophisticated 'structure-from-motion' software.

Jerome plans to integrate these high-resolution, sub-centimetre scale recreations of vegetated dunes into a numerical model of desert landscape evolution. UAVs are becoming increasingly prevalent and affordable, and the potential for their applications in environmental research, from conservation to geomorphology through climatology, is immense.

Clear changes in vegetation cover and type across a dune transect in the Kalahari Desert.

Clear changes in vegetation cover and type across a dune transect in the Kalahari Desert.

Mapping vegetation patterning in an ephemeral river, southern Namib Desert (vehicle for scale).

Mapping vegetation patterning in an ephemeral river, southern Namib Desert (vehicle for scale).

The ethereal shape of a barchan dunefield in the Skeleton Coast only becomes apparent from the air.

The ethereal shape of a barchan dunefield in the Skeleton Coast only becomes apparent from the air.