Drones and Dolomites: Field work in the Picos de Europa

By Dr Veerle Vandeginste; Assistant Professor in Geochemistry

More than 80 drone flights, a total of 5359 pictures by drone, more than 80 km mountain hiking, 42 km car driving per day and a total of 828 m ground-penetrating radar survey. These figures sum up our very successful ten-day field trip in the eastern part of the Picos de Europa Mountains in northern Spain, as part of the Qatar Carbonates and Carbon Storage Research Centre project (Imperial College London).

The excellent weather conditions of seven and a half days of sun, ideal for drone flights, and two and a half days of clouds and fog, good for ground penetrating radar work contribute to this success, but above all we had a fantastic team which made it possible to achieve significantly more than anticipated for these ten days. The field team members were Fergus Kennedy (Skylark Aerial Imaging, UK), Manuel Antonio Diaz Rodriguez (Falcon Air Academy, Spain), Muhamad Yusuf Abdul Madjid (MSc Petroleum Geoscience student, Imperial College London) and myself. With all the equipment hiking up each day an elevation difference of 400 to 700 m in as little as 50 minutes from almost freezing temperatures the first day to up to 30ºC during the heat wave the last days, I think we all pushed our physical limits, except for Fergus who is used to hiking at more than 5 km altitude and who was enthusiastically running ahead to capture us on video and shoot amazing pictures!

Greeting from the Dolomite Hunters
The goal of our field work was to apply novel methods to map dolomite bodies in the Carboniferous carbonate host rocks of the Caliza de Montaña and Picos de Europa Formations. Dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) is a diagenetic product formed by interaction of magnesium rich fluids with limestone (calcium carbonate). The transformation of limestone to dolomite results in changes in the rock texture, hence altering porosity and permeability characteristics. As a consequence, the presence of dolomite bodies in carbonate host rock contributes to heterogeneity in carbonate rocks that are potential reservoirs for hydrocarbons or carbon dioxide storage. Therefore, it is critical to gain insight in the controls on the distribution and dimensions of those bodies.

Previous years, we focused on mapping the dolomite in the area near Fuente Dé (south-central Picos de Europa) in a conventional way by tracing and walking the bodies with GPS. This year, we applied a novel way of mapping those bodies in detail, namely by using a drone to derive the distribution of dolomite bodies based on colour difference, in addition to checking and confirming the dolomite composition on the ground. Despite the challenging conditions of mountain areas to carry out drone flights for high resolution images, our excellent drone pilot and expert made it possible to cover a total area about five times as large in half the amount of field days compared to the conventional mapping method last year in the less challenging area near Fuente Dé!

Furthermore, we ran a series of tests using ground-penetrating radar to evaluate this method for near-surface three-dimensional mapping of the dolomite bodies, a research issue that is still a crucial challenge up to today! Our preliminary results look very promising and Muhamad will be working for the coming two months on processing the geophysical and remote sensing data.

80 drone missions equals a lot of data!
Many more persons have been crucial in making this field trip a success and I would like to thank everyone involved, including (but not limited to) Bhavna Patel (QCCSRC administrator) who did an incredible job in making all the bookings, Lindsay Holowka (GERC) for arranging Muhamad’s placement at BGS, Jonathan Hirst (Head of School, Nottingham) and Katharine Reid (Head of Department, Nottingham) for impressively quick replies on research permit issues and other matters, Adam Booth (University of Leeds) for quick feedback and help concerning the ground-penetrating radar work, Colm Jordan (BGS) for co-supervision and remote sensing advise, Gary Hampson (Director of MSc Petroleum Geoscience, Imperial College London) for co-supervision and help with safety issues, and last but not least Iain Macdonald (QCCSRC manager), Martin Blunt (QCCSRC director) and Naji Saad (Qatar Petroleum) for advice and continuous support of this dolomite research and making this field trip happening! Thank you all for making this work extremely successful and an unforgettable experience!

Did you know?
Veerle previously wrote a blog for the GERC Diary highlighting her research interests and her path to her current employment. You can read it here

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