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Drones Accelerate Archaeological Site Mapping

A drone aircraft can acquire in minutes data for a 3-D map of an archaeological site that would have taken humans years to gather. Cynthia Graber reports

Archaeology’s taking to the air. Researchers spent a month this summer testing a semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle—basically a semi-autonomous drone—high in the Andes in Peru. The goal: to scan a colonial town from the 1500s that had been built over an Incan settlement, and then abandoned.

It’s a collaboration between Vanderbilt University archaeologist Steven Wernke and engineering professor Julie Adams. Adams tricked out a vehicle from Aurora Flight Sciences to include cameras and algorithms that allow the drone to achieve optimal flight patterns. The resulting detailed 3-D map will be much more precise than high-resolution satellite images.

Here’s Steven Wernke: “By our calculations this vehicle will be able to take imagery of an area in about 10-15 minutes that would take two or three entire field seasons using traditional methods.”

The system can fit into a backpack. Once the researchers incorporate what they learned, they hope the technology can assist in the rapid cataloguing of a variety of archaeological sites, some of which are already being lost to the ravages of new developments and time.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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