I feel the need…
…the need for speed! a great many overlapping photos methodically taken by a drone following a pre-programmed flight path.

It’s a rare thing for my profession to involve the intoxicating sound of rotor-blades spinning up to propel a marvel of human engineering into the sky. But in the last year it has happened twice in support of conservation work at the world-famous Fossil Forest, near Lulworth Cove.

The Fossil Forest has been closed for quite some time due to the access being made dangerous by rock falls. Recent work, in part funded by the Coastal Communities Fund, has involved the repair of the access way and an overall improvement to the information visitors can read to gain an understanding of the geology at the site. The project even included the introduction of two pieces of fossil wood, so people could see and touch some fantastic examples of real trees preserved in our rocks since the end of the Jurassic Period.

 

Lulworth Fossil Forest seating area

The newly installed seating area at Lulworth Fossil Forest.

 

Sally King, our colleague in the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team, arranged for a Royal Navy helicopter to pick up two massive lumps of fossilised wood from Portland and transport them a few short miles to their new home near the Fossil Forest. It happened on a glorious sunny day and to my great disappointment, I wasn’t actually there to see it. A proper helicopter used for geological conservation! Amazing.

Never mind, because in January 2020 I did get to see some flying-machine action at the Fossil Forest. And this thing didn’t just have one rotor – what I saw had FOUR rotors, all going at once! Ok, the entire contraption was only one metre across and was remote controlled using an iPad, but it still counts! It was in fact a drone, one that belongs to and is flown by Natural England.

Working in collaboration with our colleagues at Natural England, we arranged for permission from the MOD to fly said drone at the Fossil Forest in order to capture some special images of the site. We had three reasons to try this out. Firstly, it hadn’t really been done before, it was a bit of a test to see if the use of a drone can benefit geological conservation. This is just what we want – the Jurassic Coast to be a place of innovation.

 

Natural England Drone Flight

Natural England staff flying the drone at the Lulworth Fossil Forest

 

Secondly, we wanted to capture a photographic record of the entire Fossil Forest to help us monitor how it changes over time. A drone is by far the most efficient way to do that. Thirdly, we wanted to attempt to take a set of photos that could be stitched together to make a 3D image of the Fossil Forest.

Apart from it just being downright cool to have a 3D model of a part of the Jurassic Coast, it also seemed like the perfect thing to help people understand the place from afar. The Fossil Forest is actually quite difficult to get to, involving a trudge around Lulworth Cove at low tide or a longer walk following steep and rugged paths. In short, not everyone can visit it. Having a 3D model that can be loaded online will allow us to show off the Fossil Forest to anyone, anywhere in the world!

Thankfully, we had absolutely perfect weather – flat light and hardly a breath of wind. The drone pilot, Bob, had programmed the drone to manoeuvre itself over the Fossil Forest, stopping to take photographs at regular intervals. All we had to do was stand there and watch. As I am writing this, we are still waiting to see if the photographs it took can be put together to form the 3D image, but with any luck, we will have it ready for when the Fossil Forest reopens to the public.

 

Fossil Forest

The Fossil Forest at Lulworth. © Ben Osborne

 

In the meantime, if you are curious to see what it might look like, have a look at the Jurassic Coast Sketchfab page. Here you can see existing 3D models of some inland geological sites, produced for us by archaeologist Professor Dominic Powlesland. These were created using photographs from a camera at ground level. It would simply be impossible to use that method to capture the Fossil Forest in the same way. Using a drone really does create new and amazing opportunities for us along the coast.

If the experiment at the Fossil Forest is a success, we may fly the drone again at other locations. Which part of the Jurassic Coast would you want to record in 3D? It seems that these days, the sky really is the limit.

Sam Scriven, February 2020