AlUla: Preserving Saudi Arabia’s Majestic Cultural Heritage with Drones

DJI drones document a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back more than 200,000 years

By Ishveena Singh Ishveena Singh
August 30, 2023

Situated in northwest Saudi Arabia, AlUla is an iconic and inspiring region that encapsulates 200,000 years of human history. Often described as the “world’s largest living museum,” the UNESCO World Heritage site is home to spectacular natural rock formations that also double up as an “open-air library” chronicling the origins of the Arabic language.

More than one hundred well-preserved and inscribed tombs, 900 houses, 500 shops, five town squares, and a castle dating back to the 10th century bear testimony to the confluence of commerce and culture that once was AlUla. Today, the area is at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan that focuses on sustainable development through economic diversification actions. 

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The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) was established in 2017 specifically to protect and evolve AlUla as a place of heritage for the world to explore. The Kingdom understands that safeguarding the nation’s cultural patrimony in a digital format is crucial for its understanding, analysis, and long-term stewardship.

This is why NineTenths, one of the leading drone technology companies in Saudi Arabia, was recently tasked with creating a digital twin of a core area of the historical town measuring 1 sq km. The team deployed the DJI Matrice 300 (M300) RTK drone and Zenmuse P1 full-frame 45MP photogrammetry camera for the project. Armed with the requisite data, NineTenths collaborated with French company Geokali and leveraged the latter’s expertise in 3D data production to create a high-resolution replica of the site. 

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How drones are helping preserve historical treasures

When local officials mulled traditional surveying options, they quickly realized not only would an up-close visual inspection consume countless manhours, it could potentially put both the inspectors and the site in danger. Only a modern technology solution, such as a professional drone, could allow for efficient and high-precision 3D documentation of the ancient architecture, especially when it was spread over an area as large as 1 sq km.

NineTenths decided to use the M300 with a P1 sensor because of its unique Smart Oblique Capture feature. In this mode, the P1’s gimbal rotates and captures five different images from five different angles while flying along its predetermined flight path. Chosen flight parameters further instruct the camera to avoid any unnecessary image capture, such as that at the periphery of the mapping area, ensuring that the drone takes only those photos that are essential to the reconstruction of the region of interest.

Moreover, the DJI M300 allows the Smart Oblique Capture mode to be used in conjunction with another surveying feature that is super helpful: Terrain Follow. The NineTenths team imported a Digital Surface Model (DSM) of the area while planning the mission in DJI Pilot 2 app. This allowed the drone to fly at a consistent altitude of 30m above ground level despite multiple variations in the terrain below.

Two M300 drones were flown simultaneously over a period of five days to capture the 450,000 images that were stitched together in the DJI Terra all-in-one mapping software. Once the reconstruction process was complete, Terra was utilized further to generate a point cloud that would become the foundation of AlUla’s digital twin. When Geokali created the final 3D model, it fused this point cloud with another one which was captured using a handheld LiDAR device. 

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Unparalleled results with time- and cost-savings

According to NineTenths’ estimates, using the DJI drone with a P1 sensor allowed the team to achieve time-savings of at least three weeks, while the surveying cost was practically cut in half

Even more importantly, the virgin, natural beauty of AlUla remained unscathed because manual inspectors were not required to climb up roofs or rocks. That said, the images from the drone survey also helped to discover important areas that were in need of quick attention in terms of maintenance and repair.

Khalid Alanazi, AlUla Project Manager, NineTenths, says the jewel in Saudi Arabia’s heritage crown looks stunning from every drone survey angle. “For instance, the outward, top view of the rock formations as well as petroglyphs and engravings on them showed interesting details that couldn’t have been captured without the drone surveying the site from a low altitude and with a high-resolution payload such as the Zenmuse P1.”

Khalid adds, “All stakeholders involved in the mission were quite impressed by the M300’s stability and the ease of drawing up the flight mission in the DJI Pilot 2 app. There were times when we switched to manual flight mode to capture certain towers from close proximity, and the remote controller made that process an absolute breeze.”

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Capturing the past for a better future

There’s no question that drones are set to become a game-changer for Saudi Arabia which is home to some of the most unique and culturally significant heritage sites.

Khalid explains that the biggest challenge for commercial drone adoption today lies in obtaining the necessary flight permits, and that is where the experience and expertise of companies like NineTenths become a crucial differentiator for the authorities issuing them.

“Not many Saudis are accustomed to watching drones flying overhead. Naturally, there are concerns about privacy as well. Drone service providers documenting heritage sites must ensure that adequate measures are taken during the mission for both operational safety as well as privacy protection. We are extremely proud of what we have achieved at AlUla and are looking forward to capturing more irreplaceable cultural artifacts and sites across the nation digitally.”

DJI drones make the preservation of historic sites easier, faster, safer, and more effective. To learn more about which drone is best for your project, request a consultation with an official DJI Enterprise dealer by entering your details below.

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Ishveena Singh
About the Author Ishveena Singh

Ishveena Singh (she/her) is a multi-platform journalist and writer whose articles on drones and geospatial technologies have appeared in Geospatial World, GeoConnexion, MapScaping, Fluid Handling International, Women Who Drone, Geoawesomeness, and many other publications. Currently, she contributes regular news, case studies, and feature pieces to

Before turning to the world of drones, Ishveena spent nearly a decade writing and editing for newspapers and media websites including The Times of India, Microsoft’s MSN News, Miami Herald International, and Daily Post India.

Ishveena has been named as one of the 50 Rising Stars of the geospatial industry by Geospatial Media and Communications, the creators of Geospatial World Forum and GeoBuiz Summit.

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