Genk native takes stunning drone footage in Greece: “Better informing farmers and foresters”

Genk/Thessaloniki - Thursday 30 June 2022 -

Genk native Sam Ottoy (32) has professional expertise as a bioengineer and a drone pilot’s license. This brought him to Thessaloniki in March, where he is mapping agriculture and forest sites in detail. From peach fields to mountain forests and the finest Greek vineyards.

Gunter Schoofs

Just last week, Sam Ottoy was flying his drones in the mountains. Not over Thessaloniki itself. “That’s not permitted given the proximity of the airport. Our working domain is outside the city anyway, in the mountains and forests. We live in Kalamariá, a quiet offshoot of Thessaloniki. Because the city is rather chaotic. You won’t find any parking. When I told my colleagues that I would like to cycle to work, they called me crazy. In the city centre, people are not used to seeing cyclists on the streets. While in Belgium I do tend to hop on a bike.”

Who exactly do you work for?

“I am a bioengineering lecturer and researcher for KU Leuven and the PXL University of Applied Sciences and Arts. As part of those positions, I am here to set up collaborative projects with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. They have a wealth of experience in image processing and satellite imagery. All in a challenging environment. I try to apply that knowledge and expertise to drone imagery to map out as much as possible.”

Such as?

“For example, we try to estimate the fire sensitivity of forests. Given that we are able to fly low with drones, we can take very precise images of the entire forest. Not only of trees, but also of the shrubs, which are an important fuel in forest fires. We also work in agricultural areas. We combine as much info as possible from peach and kiwi plantations and even the finest vineyards. We take soil samples and examine the presence of carbon. We see what links we can make to the drone footage.”

Were you asked due to your knowledge as a bioengineer or as a drone pilot?

“One does not preclude the other. I mainly work with engineers who specialise in soil expertise and the combination with satellite imagery. They themselves did not have much experience with drones, but when we went over the results together, I did notice that they were very interested in them. For this stay, I received a travel grant from the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). I got my pilot’s license for Belgium three years ago. Last year, I obtained European flying rights.”

Sam takes stunning drone footage in Greece.   

Why are ordinary aerial photographs insufficient for survey purposes?

“Because drones allow you to take images at a much higher resolution. You can capture more details, allowing you to literally see the forest for the trees. Satellite images also contain useful information and can also cover a larger area. So in the best case scenario, you can combine the two.”

“My wife is half Greek. Her grandfather originally came to Genk as a miner, and the family stuck around. That was a factor in choosing this project.”

Sam Ottoy

Is your family with you in Thessaloniki?

“Indeed. “My wife is half Greek. Her grandfather originally came to Genk as a miner, and the family stuck around. That was a factor in choosing this project. My wife can connect to her roots here. After all, she speaks Greek, but I’m even more impressed by my four-year-old son. It is truly unbelievable how easily he is adapting and how quickly he is picking up Greek. He essentially understands everything at school. That is something I find impressive every day. I myself am surrounded by English in scientific circles. We will stay until mid-August. Then we’ll take the boat back.”

And then what?

“I’ll start administering retakes in Belgium right away. The new academic year will also be on the horizon, so we will see what comes our way. This came in handy. Leaving the university or PXL in a first semester is not practically possible. As of March however, it was.”

Do you also get time to be a tourist?

“That’s my biggest hobby outside of work. The convenient thing is that you can quickly reach the centre by bus or cab. I have a Ford S-Max. I needed a big car for the drones. But I haven’t driven into the centre yet with that Ford. In terms of traffic, Thessaloniki is very chaotic. But it is also so beautiful here, with the historic sites and tasty restaurants. Thessaloniki is officially the culinary capital of Greece.”

Do you also travel beyond Thessaloniki?

“We do occasionally visit an island. Or we head to the beautiful beaches and forests to cool off. The good thing about Thessaloniki and the surrounding area is that you have everything. You can easily reach the bustling city, but you can also quickly get to the beach or a good restaurant. I’m not an active athlete but I do hike to see things.”

“When I told my colleagues that I would like to cycle to work, they called me crazy.”

Sam Ottoy

Sam Ottoy at work with his drones.    

When you return next academic year, exactly what subjects will you be teaching?

“At PXL, I teach in the Agro and Biotechnology programme, with a major in Green Management. My students include future green experts and biodiversity experts. I am also affiliated with the Bio-Research research centre there, where we use the same drones to inventory trees and parks. At KUL, I teach geographic information systems at the Faculty of Bioengineering. In that course, we look into ways of dealing with spatial data. So you do realise that collecting and processing drone images can be useful for these students.”

“Actually, I attended almost all meetings online and missed little of the academy proceedings. I was able to give the classes I was supposed to teach. We planned everything for my arrival in March.”

Are you planning to settle back in Belgium?

“Definitely. Although I do value building lasting relationships here so that I can return. Both in a research and holiday context. Besides, Limburg will also benefit from my experiences here. The algorithms we use to inventory trees and their health can also be perfectly applied back home, in, say, the fruit region.”

The temperatures are tropical. Life among Greeks encourages celebration. Will there be some fun Greek nights before you return?

“(Hoots) With my wife around, all days have a Greek vibe. We have already gone out to dinner after work with my colleagues once. To me that’s already dinner time, but for them it’s just lunch. Oddly, they just skip lunch during shifts. My Greek colleagues work straight through. They did already give me a few good tips for local ouzeries and taverns where you can share dishes. Exceptionally delicious and cosy. And I already loved the Greek restaurants in Genk. I love the cuisine here. However, it is still extremely hot. 39 degrees at the moment, which is quite something. And I heard friends in Belgium complaining recently.” (laughs)

Sam Ottoy

Age: 32

Profession: Bioengineer/lecturer/researcher

Partner: Sofia Zervas

Parents: Frank Ottoy and Berthe Salaets

Siblings: Lisa (37), Robbe (35), Ben (30).

Education Primary education: Vrije Basisschool Wiemesmeer. Secondary school: Sint-Jan Berchmanscollege Genk. Higher education: KU Leuven - Bioengineering. PhD: KU Leuven - Bioengineering.

About Thessaloniki

Thessaloniki is located in northern Greece, on the Gulf of Thessaloniki, which is part of the Aegean Sea. It is the second largest city in Greece. The city proper has a population of 320,000. That’s almost double Brussels. The wider area around the city is home to more than 1 million residents.

What do you absolutely have to order at a restaurant in Thessaloniki?

“We enjoy going to a taverna, in which case we usually have plenty of appetisers and salads to share. One thing we invariably order are kolokithokeftedes, which are zucchini fritters. We also enjoy being surprised by the creativity of young Greek cuisine. For example, on our first night here, we had a lovely dinner at To Manitari in Kalamariá. Highly recommended. Also essential are some typical Thessaloniki specialities: a bougatsa for breakfast and a koulouri for the road.”

What’s the perfect walk for city trippers?

“Start from the castle, the Heptapyrgion, which is at the very top in the centre of Thessaloniki. From there, follow the road down past numerous authentic churches and sights. Along the way, you will be blown away. Both culinarily and culturally.”

A few more questions

How much do your drones cost?

“I have three drones with me. A smaller one weighing 249 grams, one weighing 1.4 kg and the largest weighing just over 6 kg. The drones themselves are already fairly expensive, but some of the sensors that need to be attached to the drone are even more expensive. One of those sensors alone can sometimes cost 15,000 euros. So I have to be careful with my equipment and have to put it away properly every time.”

You call yourself a passive sports fan, what does that mean?

“I am a supporter of KRC Genk. But apparently I haven’t missed that much since I’ve been here. In Thessaloniki, you can feel the rivalry between PAOK and Aris FC. Just before my arrival here, AA Gent played here in the Conference League. I wanted to attend the match, but was just too late. I wouldn’t take my young son yet, though. Things can get rather fierce here.”

What did you pay for petrol the other day?

“Petrol is currently at 2.384 euros. Diesel is also above 2 euros: 2.154. It is by no means only in Belgium that prices are skyrocketing, should anyone still think so. Those insane prices are also on the mind of many Greeks.”

What is your guilty pleasure?

“I am often tempted by those popular, iced take-out coffees here. The combination of melting ice cubes and coffee foam makes it ideal to take with you on a long Sunday stroll along the quay.”

Who is Sam’s partner?

“My wife’s name is Sofia Zervas, she grew up in Genk. She is a GP and works in a group practice in Zwartberg. She also trains future GPs. We have one young son together: Elias (4). My wife can indulge in the Greek language here. She too just picks up her work again in Belgium when we are back in Genk. But the fact that she has Greek roots was what finally persuaded us to plunge into this adventure.”

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