College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

PhD graduate Dr Lyndon Riddle.

PhD Study Uses Drones to Map Drakensberg Gullies

Dr Lyndon Riddle’s journey to his PhD in Environmental Science included stints as a high school teacher and university lecturer, a global pandemic, and relocation overseas, but he is celebrating from afar after receiving this title for his study on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) multispectral imagery to map gullies in KwaZulu-Natal’s Drakensberg mountain range.

Originally from Durban where he attended Glenwood High School, Riddle’s interest in technology, geography and the environment initially led him to enrol for an Engineering degree at UKZN. Finding that he was better suited to environmental sciences, he switched to that programme on the Westville campus, moving to the Pietermaritzburg campus for his honours and master’s degrees.

During his studies, Riddle enjoyed learning innovative techniques and new concepts from other students and lecturers. Conversations with his lecturers and supervisors motivated him to continue to PhD studies to explore ideas sparked during his master’s research.

Taking his love for the natural environment and fascination with technology into academic applications, Riddle was interested in establishing how technology could make geography research easier and more effective, and the programmes he watched on the three-dimensional modelling of ancient artefacts and buildings led him to explore how these techniques could be used to map soil erosion.

Supervised by Professors Trevor Hill and Alistair Clulow, Riddle linked remote sensing technology with community-based engagement projects to understand the causes and consequences of erosional processes and consider the nature-based solutions or rehabilitation methods used.

‘The application of UAVs is rapidly altering the way we perceive the landscape, access to sites and the modelling of landscapes through remote sensing,’ he said.

While he was conducting his research, Riddle lectured in Geography at UKZN, a diversion from the pressures of his PhD that was still sufficiently within his field to strengthen the skills he could apply to his studies. He also taught Geography for a time at his former high school and said that playing sport and regular visits to the beach helped to balance the demands of a PhD with a healthy lifestyle.

Despite the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Riddle’s research progressed thanks to the calm guidance and reassurance of his supervisors. He credited Clulow and Hill for their help, saying that they exposed him to new ways of thinking and translating his ideas into publishable research and that his PhD would not have been possible without their support.

A supportive family base also played an essential role in Riddle’s success and spurred him on to achieve his goals. Conversations with his wife and family members provided emotional support and motivation, without which Riddle said he would not be celebrating making it to the level of PhD.

Riddle now resides in the United Kingdom where he works in the telecommunications field designing fibre routing and looks forward to exploring the applications of the technology he researched during his PhD in his new locale, while also considering a return to teaching at tertiary level since he enjoyed lecturing at UKZN.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Supplied