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Indiana Drones: Piloting the New Robot Archaeology Over Peruvian Ruins

It may not crack whips and fight Nazis, at least not yet. But it still sounds pretty badass: An interdisciplinary research team out of Vanderbilt University is using a semi-autonomous SUAVe - their very own micro Indiana Drone (sorry) - to map the...
August 3, 2012, 6:15pm

It may not crack whips and fight Nazis, at least not yet. But it still sounds pretty badass: An interdisciplinary research team out of Vanderbilt University is using a semi-autonomous SUAVe – their very own micro Indiana Drone (sorry) – to map the ruins of Mawchu Llacta, Peru.

The town was built in the late 1570s over an old Inca settlement. Little else is known about the place, or its abandonment. Mawchu Llacta has since weathered down to “standing architecture arranged in regular blocks”. 3D-mapping ruins on this scale – the team is targeting an area the size of nearly 25 football fields – often takes years to complete using existing field technologies. By using a drone? Minutes.

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It takes archaeologist Steven Wernke and engineering professor Julie A. Adams, who head the research team, about 45 minutes to hike into the space from Tuti, a nearby village. The Aurora Skate, Adams and Wernke’s drone of choice, is portable enough to fit into a backpack, so from there it’s just a matter of unpacking the thing, telling its software where you’d like it to go and what to check out, and then launching.

Mawchu Llacta (via)

The idea, according to Wernke’s website, is to marry the strengths of archaeological and archival information to image a complete stereoscopic view of a “crucial period of transition.”

"Archaeology is a spatial discipline," Wernke adds. "We depend on accurate documentation of not just what artifacts were used in a given time period, but how they were used in their cultural context. In this sense, SUAVe can provide a fundamental toolset of wide significance in archaeological research."

It sounds like a no-brainer. It’s quick and simple, for one. After it’s through capturing images, the Skate lands and immediately begins offloading its data, which are then lined up into “a large mosaic, and transformed into a map,” according to Werkne. It’s also capable of extremely high-res imaging, better than even today’s leading-edge satellite imagery. Right now we’re seeing small-fry UAV being put to all sorts of insane uses – for tracking jungle deforestation, monitoring wolf populations throughout the American West, and on and on – with potential uses stacking up just as quick. Adams says these systems would be a prime tool for search and rescue, for "evaluating the site of a major crisis such as Sept. 11 to decide how to deploy lifesaving resources more effectively."

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So, who knows. The team plans on running trials on the India Drone through mid August. Should the system prove cost effective, we could be at the dawn of the new drone archaeology. Hit the comments with other spots worthy of the drone treatment. My vote: Petra.

Top image via Anne Rayner / Vanderbilt

Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson

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