Digging with Drones

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Drone technology for civilians is still in its infancy, but new uses are being devised every day. One of the coolest applications for drones is in the field of archaeology.

The basic photography capabilities of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are an obvious boon to archaeologists. Carefully mapping a site, noting topographical details, and measuring slight changes in elevation have historically been labor intensive. The first months or years on an archaeological site were typically used to perform these basic tasks.

Archaeology with Drones  (Cynthinee "Fieldwork" https://www.flickr.com/photos/cynthinee/6665618183/ Used via Creative Commons License )

Archaeology with Drones

Photo Credit: Fieldwork by Cynthinee via Creative Commons License.

Today, even large sites can have a basic map completed by drones in a matter of days. Photogrammetry, which is the field of using photographs for surveying and mapping, goes far beyond what humans on the ground can do. By taking several photographs of each section of terrain, 3D maps and models of the terrain and archaeological features can be made. The exact distance between any two objects or points is easily measured, as are changes in elevation.

In addition to surveying known sites, photogrammetry with drones also allows for more sites to be found in the first place. The unprecedented amount of data allows for very small changes in topography to be seen. Unexpected changes in topography is often a sign of human activity or habitation. In Ireland, Thomas Finan, a professor from Saint Louis University in Missouri, is using drones to find medieval sites. In a press release, Finan noted that “The 3D landscape data allows us to see minute changes in the topography that can be defined as structures and human occupation. The digital data collected with the geophysics is then wrapped around that 3D data to give us an amazing understanding of what is there without sinking a spade. ”

UAVs, of course, can fly over terrain that is too remote or dangerous for people to map. Many important historical sites are in remote areas, areas of rough terrain, and even war zones. Using drones for mapping minimizes the risk to human life, and greatly reduces the dollar value of equipment at risk.

Anyone who has seen a documentary on ancient Egypt knows that one of the largest threats to tombs and other historic sites is looters. Once mapping of a site is complete, drones can be used to monitor the terrain, looking for changes. If looting occurs, the drones will notice the impact of digging or other changes to the ground, buildings, or features. Morag M. Kersel, a professor of anthropology at DePaul University, presented his research on the use of drones to monitor sites on 14 February 2016 at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Professor Kersel noted that by using drones to monitor a site in Fifa, Jordan they were able to detect 34 episodes of looting between 2013 and 2014. As holes in the ground would appear, the drones would detect them. Drones also detect changes caused by erosion, flooding, and other natural phenomena. The Fifa site is important as it is an exploration of prehistoric sites, dating back 8,000 years. Mounds that dot the landscape were long thought to be natural geographical features, but aerial images showed that they were actually the remains of hundreds of collapsed buildings and structures. Buildings from that time were built with basalt, and drones make it much easier to separate basalt structures built by people from natural basalt deposits.

Cameras are not the only technology that can go aloft with a drone. A Native American settlement in New Mexico, known as Blue J, was discovered about 40 years ago. However, the site was remote and the area was covered in stone and vegetation. Blue J was largely forgotten.

In 2014, archaeologists from the University of Arkansas used a drone with thermal imaging equipment to search the area. Bricks and other building materials hold heat longer than wetter, cooler soil, and this enables thermal imaging techniques to “see” beneath the surface of the desert. In just five flights, each lasting only eleven minutes, the team from Arkansas was able to see a much larger village than was visible above ground. Not only is much more known in general about Blue J thanks to these flights, the precise location and depths of the features are now known. This enables current and future archaeologists to put together a budget, and a list of required equipment and personnel, for excavating Blue J.

The use of drones in archaeology, as in nearly all fields of human endeavor, is just beginning. The last few years have shown how important Unmanned Aerial Vehicles will be to finding new archaeological sites, mapping sites, and keeping sites from harm. Increases in flight time and weight capacity will allow more sites to benefit from drones more rapidly, and will allow other sensor equipment to be airborne soon. This is an exciting example of the ancient and the modern combining for the benefit of all people.

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