Using drones to map land ownership in Kenya

February 14th, 2018, Published in Articles: PositionIT

Mapping land boundaries is an important way to boost a country’s economic growth and development. It contributes towards better security of land ownership, allows land owners to get bank loans and helps governments to tax owners correctly.

Unfortunately, in most African countries only about 30% of the land boundaries have been mapped. Mapping is done to capture the land’s boundaries with a view to registering ownership. Once mapping is completed, usually using techniques like global positioning systems (GPS), authorities can issue a title deed or certificate of occupancy. This shows who holds rights to which pieces of land.

In Kenya, during the 1960s, photographs taken from airplanes were used to develop property maps. Kenyans were agitating for their land rights after the colonial British government had been unseated. The title deeds that were handed out as a result of those airplane photographs have formed the basis of Kenya’s property system for decades.

Fig. 1: The DT18 UAV. (Credit: Yoann Pesin)

Fig. 1: The DT18 UAV. (Credit: Yoann Pesin)

Today, aerial photographs from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can be used for mapping property boundaries. In most parts of Africa, people demarcate their land using hedges. Ground-based land surveying techniques can be slow if the aim is to record all the parcels of land within a district or province.

But UAVs can be used to photograph hedges from the air. The maps developed from those photos are then linked to land ownership records to create formal land registers. This is an important way to record and keep track of land ownership in any given country.

I am involved in a project funded by the European Commission, “its4land“, that is testing the use of UAVs for land mapping and registration. The research is being carried out in three African countries: Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. The hope is that if the research yields positive results it can be rolled out elsewhere on the continent. As far as we are aware, we are among the first internationally to test the use of UAVs for land registration.

Putting drones to work

Different types of UAVs can be used for mapping. The two main types are the fixed-wing UAVs and the quad-copter UAVs.

A DT18 fixed-wing UAV produced by Delairtech, a French company, is used for the testing. This type of UAV is suitable for covering long distances, which is necessary when mapping large area property boundaries.

Two pilots per country were trained at Delairtech’s offices in Toulouse, France. I’m one of the Kenyan pilots, the other is a master’s student, also from my university. All of the pilots were drawn from the partner universities in Africa. The pilots are taught how to control the UAV, how to develop a flight path, how to fly safely and how to process the data that is collected.

Fig. 2: UAV flight planning.

Fig. 2: UAV flight planning.

Flight paths are set up using waypoints or digital markers. The UAVs follow these from start to finish. The DT18 can map a distance of up to 20 km at a time. It can be redirected or recalled mid-flight if the pilot detects a risk. The UAV is fitted with a camera, which takes pictures as directed by the pilot who is following the flight on a laptop screen. The pictures are sent back to the laptop and stored on the UAVs own on-board memory card.

No flying has happened yet, since all the project teams are awaiting permission from the relevant authorities in their countries to send the drones skyward.

We have also brought residents into the project to get their support. In Kenya, our research is being carried out among the Maasai tribe in Kajiado county, and among the Luo tribe in Kisumu county. We have visited a few sites in these counties and explained our research, and these groups will receive feedback throughout the process.

Challenges and opportunities

UAVs are not without their problems. They can be dangerous if flown without proper guidelines or permission, or by untrained pilots. Many countries in Africa have not passed any laws about the use of UAVs. Kenya is ahead in this regard, with its civil aviation authority having already developed and passed guidelines for flying UAVs.

The process of obtaining permission to fly is very rigorous, which is important, because drones can be a threat to normal airplanes and could even cause a collision. If this technology is rolled out for land mapping elsewhere in Africa, countries will need to first develop and adopt strict guidelines for flying.

Our hope is that this project will help countries across Africa increase the number of land parcels that are mapped. It can also clarify the figures for different types of land ownership – private, public or community. This is important, as land ownership is a driver for economic growth and development.


This article first appeared in The Conversation in November 2017, and is republished here with permission.

Contact Robert Wayumba, Technical University of Kenya,

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