Not only are two of the world’s longest caves located in the Riviera Maya, but some of the most important archaeological discoveries have been found within them. This discovery has helped shed light on the ancient Maya Civilization as well as the earliest human migrations into the Americas. Running through these caves is the aquifer of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and the overall health and welfare of the region depend largely on the aquifer’s health.
CINDAQ, a non-profit located in Mexico, plays a critical role in influencing watershed management issues in Quintana Roo. It helps raise awareness about the fragility and importance of the region’s aquifer while also supporting the conservation of the natural and cultural resources associated with the region’s cenotes and underground rivers.
And while CINDAQ has been experimenting with drones in their operations for nearly three years, the non-profit discovered by pairing their operations with DroneDeploy they can gain far greater insights into the aquifer’s health.
DroneDeploy enables us to do our jobs better. Whether it is locating new cave entrances or documenting surface conditions, the use of a drone and DroneDeploy allows us to be more efficient with our time.
Sam Meacham, Director, CINDAQ
We sat down with Sam Meacham, Director of CINDAQ, and he shared with us his findings and explorations. He also shared some of the challenges his team faces in the Yucatan Peninsula, and how they are using drones and DroneDeploy to counteract these obstacles.
DroneDeploy (DD): At a very high level, what would you say CINDAQ’s main goal is?
Sam Meacham (SM): (laughs) Well, our operations can be incredibly complex, but I suppose at a high, high level, CINDAQ is looking to explore and better understand the aquifer of Quintana Roo, Mexico.
DD: And what’s the importance of this aquifer?
SM: This aquifer is essential as it directly influences the health and economic wellbeing of the region’s human population. It also nourishes many of the ecosystems below it.
DD: As Director of CINDAQ, you’re responsible for a number of things, including the conservation of the natural and cultural resources associated with the cenotes and underground rivers of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Can you talk about some of the bigger challenges CINDAQ is facing today?
SM: Due to the aquifer’s vulnerability to contamination, the recent rampant development at the surface poses a significant threat to the economic and social welfare of the region.
DD: Is tourism also a contributor?
SM: Absolutely. What many people don’t realize is that the flooded cave systems of this region are conduits for freshwater moving from the jungle interior out to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. And since this region contributes approximately 10% of Mexico’s Gross National Product, the impact of a contaminated aquifer and associated ecosystems would have far-reaching and potentially disastrous results not only for the region’s tourist-based economy but for Mexico as a whole.
DD: You said before your operations can be incredibly complex, can you sort of walk us through how CINDAQ looks to protect this aquifer on a daily basis?
SM: Well, first of all, I’d be remiss not to mention how incredibly lucky I am to work with such an amazing team of people. We are committed to continuing cave diving exploration of the aquifer while raising awareness about it. Our diving operations provide a critical knowledge base by mapping the subterranean waterways and also provide a foundation for scientific work that ultimately helps us understand and protect the aquifer and the many ecosystems it supports.
DD: When did CINDAQ begin using drones to assist in its efforts?
SM: We started using a drone in 2017. Quickly, we realized drones could allow us to map the surface above the sites we dive, locate new cave entrances, produce 360-degree panoramas above any point in the jungle, and create point clouds of the surface topography. In the future, we’ll be able to combine surface models with our underwater models to give scientists and the general public the ability to virtually travel across and within the landscape.
DD: Why is that important?
SM: Because this type of photogrammetry – with this much detail – allows us to create a digital representation of the cave. By doing this, it allows scientists and other experts to virtually travel through the caves with absolutely no impact on the site.
DD: Are drones replacing any other technology you had previously been using?
SM: Before drones, we relied mostly on aerial photographs and satellite data to help us understand what is happening at the surface. But the sheer overall accuracy and resolution of the data we were able to pull using drones and DroneDeploy were unparalleled to that of satellite imagery.
DD: In what ways?
SM: Drones provide us unprecedented perspective on the areas where we work. Orthophotos, elevation, and plant health metrics allow us to find new dive sites and relate our discoveries and the documentation of them to what is happening at the surface. We can also create 3D models of surface terrain and generate 360-degree panoramic still images that can be loaded into VR/AR goggles. The benefits to us are incalculable. Simply put, DroneDeploy has changed the way we conduct ourselves.
DD: How do you see drones helping your business grow as you look into the future?
SM: My dream is to merge aerial 3D models with the 3D models and 360-degree augmented reality videos we capture of the caves. This would allow us to virtually take people into an environment they wouldn’t normally be able to visit – in this instance, the aquifer. If we can accomplish this, we can raise the awareness of locals and visitors in the area.
DD: What are you most excited about for CINDAQ as you look ahead?
SM: I can honestly say that I have never been more excited about what we’re doing and what we’re planning to do, and that is specifically related to the emerging technologies we deploy and the partnerships that come with it. We are convinced our actions can bring about the necessary change and awareness to help protect the aquifer of the Yucatan Peninsula, and drones and DroneDeploy are right in the middle of it.
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