Drone-based observations


Senior scientist Marjorie Perroud holding the drone following the first successful flight over the Ferpècle Glacier (Valais, Switzerland) on October 12, 2015 (Photo: © 2015 Martin Beniston).


In 2015, the climate group purchased a drone for environmental monitoring purposes. The "eBee" drone is manufactured and commercialized by Sensefly in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The missions of the new airborne observation system include glacier mass monitoring, investigating sensitive areas where slope instability can threaten downslope infrastructure in the Alps, and mapping ecosystem and biodiversity changes.


Example of a drone mission in 2016: Monitoring of the Ferpècle Glacier, Valais

It is well recognized that the impacts of a warmer climate on glaciers will lead to changes in glacier ice volume, area, and length. However, more research efforts are required in order to adequately incorporate the physical influence of glaciers within a climate model, and to investigate the feedbacks between the atmosphere and retreating glaciers. In this context, surface variables and parameters at the glacier-atmosphere interface need to be further investigated.

In a first experiment that began in the fall of 2015, the drone was used to collect high resolution data in the ablation and accumulation area of a glacier located in the Alps (the Ferpècle Glacier, identified in the map below), for different hours of the day and periods of the year.


Google Maps view of the vicinity of the Ferpècle Glacier, close to the border with Italy and just a couple of valleys from the Matterhorn.

Spatial and temporal variations of the surface temperature, albedo and roughness, inferred from thermal and RGB images, will then serve to:

- better quantify each component of the energy budget for this specific glacier,

- improve the understanding of the surface properties of glaciers (e.g., roughness),

- formulate new flux parameterizations and compare their performance with existing ones, and

- validate glacier mass balance models.

The same experiments will likely be repeated over other glaciers in the Alps, for validation purposes.


Left: An example of the flight plan for high-resolution photography. Right: thermal imagery of the Ferpècle Glacier on May 26, 2016. Blue areas are mostly ice or snow-covered zones, red colors indicate rock slopes on either side of the glacier that are exposed to solar radiation.