Rantin' and Rovin'

Can Drones Be Put to Good Use?

Good archaeological use, that is. We often see stories in the news these days about drones killing innocent civilians in Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries. I think we can all agree that killing innocent people is bad, regardless of our political views. But what if drones could be put to good use in other parts of society?

“Well,” you say, “there were some stories a few months back about using drones to deliver food, like cake or pizza. Those are good uses.”

I won’t argue against cake or pizza, but I’m not talking about delivery systems. I’m talking about archaeology.

This is an archaeology blog after all.

Archaeologists have been using aerial photography for decades, looking at the ground from the air to identify crop marks and other signs of features beneath the surface. It’s worked particularly well in places like the UK, where large amounts of archaeology are now buried under farmland.

Cropmarks as seen from the air (Source http://archaero.com/Arch%E9ologie-a%E9rienne.htm)

Cropmarks as seen from the air (Source http://archaero.com/Arch%E9ologie-a%E9rienne.htm)

Most aerial photography is taken from a plane or helicopter. This works fine if you’re surveying a lot of open fields, but doesn’t work so great when you have a lot of tall trees. It also costs a large amount of money, uses quite a few resources, and generally requires finding a place where the plane/helicopter can take off. You can’t record certain details due to the minimum altitude required to fly the plane, and GPS tracking is harder in higher altitude flights.

Famous Nazca lines in Peru, as seen from above.

Famous Nazca lines in Peru, as seen from above.

Recently, though, there have been several news stories about using drones instead of planes for aerial survey. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) like drones don’t require large amounts of space to take off, they don’t use as many resources to run, and their smaller size allows them to go places you might not get to with a plane or helicopter. They also cost a LOT less.

(Photo taken by John Howell, Professor and Chair of Geology and Petroleum Geology at the University of Aberdeen.)

Drone similar to those used in archaeological survey. (Photo taken by John Howell, Professor and Chair of Geology and Petroleum Geology at the University of Aberdeen.)

UAVs can also be equipped with various types of cameras, like heat-sensors, infrared sensors, magnetometers, and also GPS trackers. They’re operated by remote, so you can pre-program the route they take across the area and match that precisely with other mapping data in GIS. So after gathering all this data, we can plot it out to create 3D models of the landscape and the structures lying beneath its surface.

Left: Aerial photograph of a field.  Right: The same field, using heat-sensitive cameras. (c) archaeoflug.de

Left: Aerial photograph of a field. Right: The same field, using heat-sensitive cameras. © archaeoflug.de

One potential problem that has come up is whether increased information about what is underground will lead to more looting and destruction of these sites. I’ve talked about my views on looting before, and I think this will be a question regardless of whether archaeologists use drones as the discipline becomes more and more open about what we find. But hopefully just as looting may increase, so too will the desire of others to protect these sites, so that the balance of looting to preservation remains the same or even decreases in favour of preservation. In the end, though, I believe this use of UAVs is incredibly valuable for the potential knowledge we may gain, and we shouldn’t shy away from it due to concerns over looting.

There are still some technological problems to be worked out. Many of these UAVs can only fly for short periods of time (15-20 minutes), and some have a nasty habit of inexplicably crashing to the ground. But the research they have been able to carry out so far has saved large sums of money and decades of work, making drones possibly the next big thing in archaeology.

If you have any thoughts on the use of drones or want to mention any concerns, feel free to comment below.

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