Here Come The Drones

Drones can be immensely helpful to archaeologists, but regulatory uncertainty complicates their use at U.S. sites.

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A drone captured its own shadow while photographing a large petroglyph boulder in northeast Arizona. Credit: Rupestrian CyberServices
A drone captured its own shadow while photographing a large petroglyph boulder in northeast Arizona. Credit: Rupestrian CyberServices

Fall 2015: By David Malakoff.

When Mike Searcy is in the field, he likes to get a bird’s-eye picture of his study area. “That means I’m teetering on top of a ladder or climbing up on some truck, trying to get a good angle,” says the Brigham Young University archaeologist. Sometimes it’s meant taking an expensive, and nausea-inducing ride in a small plane. Things can get difficult, he says.

These days, however, Searcy has an easier option: He can, so to speak, call in a drone strike. In minutes, the flying, instrument-laden robot can skim across large archaeological sites, collecting high-resolution images that once would have been beyond the reach of most meagerly-funded archaeologists. This digital data can then be used to create detailed three-dimensional maps. “It still blows me away. I’m incredibly impressed with what a drone can help you do quickly and pretty cheaply,” says Searcy, who has used drones to document sites in the Southwestern United States and Mesoamerica.

He’s not the only researcher benefiting from this technology. In recent years, archaeologists around the world have taken advantage of plummeting drone prices and advances in imaging technology to take to the skies without ever leaving the ground. For less than $1,000 archaeologists can now buy remotely-piloted drones that can carry an array of instruments from digital cameras to sensors capable of “seeing” underground. Drones are helping researchers to discover new sites and document hard-to-reach features in rugged terrain. The aircraft can also monitor vast areas threatened by looters, development, and natural weathering, and the images they obtain can be used to create virtual copies of ancient ruins and artworks that could aid restoration efforts. “Drones are helping us get instruments where we need them, when we need them,” says Falko Kuester, a computer scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who is pioneering ways to visualize and share drone data. “We’re collecting and analyzing terabytes of data that can be shared widely.”

Summary. Read More  in our Fall 2015 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 19 No. 3

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