Archaeologists explore Peruvian ruins with semi-autonomous drones

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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aren’t just being used by the CIA to track terrorists in Yemen. Archeologists from Vanderbilt University are now using the sophisticated flying drones to map archaeological sites in the Andes Mountains of Peru from the skies.

The aerial scientific maps they are making with digital video footage of complex, ancient ruins are coming together, quickly, and promising to lead to more discoveries about ancient cultures in the coming years, scientists tell


“With the UAV, we can fly over the site and capture the required imagery in about 10 minutes,” Steve Wernke, an archeologist at Vanderbilt, who just completed photography of a site in Mawchu Llacta, a colonial town from the 1570s in the Andes, tells “Mapping a site of this scale would require about three entire field seasons and additional time during the academic year using traditional methods (that is, via laser.)”

Historically, these researchers walked the grounds of a suspected site of ruins, and used prisms, similar to laser pointers, to mark their spots indicating where they built structures, or storehouses, or where roads were located. Then they would draw a map and connect the points, and in the process identify separate houses, or other buildings, at a site.

Backpack with Software

Wernke teamed up with an engineer, Julie Adams, at Vanderbilt and a UAV developer, Aurora Flight Services, to build a flying device that can fit into a backpack. The drone contains a software system that can discern an optimal flight pattern and transform the resulting data into three-dimensional maps. “Processing the imagery and extracting an analytically-useful map requires significant additional analytical time, but much of that is automated, and is far less than required with traditional methods,” Adams tells

Wernke started developing a research project for a large, planned colonial town in the highland Andes of Peru—the site of Mawchu Llacta, located in the modern District of Tuti in the Department of Arequipa.

This archeological site, part of a colonization in the 1570s, houses approximately 400 standing buildings over a large area of at least 25 hectares, or 500 x 500 meters.  Frustrated at the slow pace of mapping the site with conventional tools, the scientists developed alternative ideas for mapping the site.  Googling on the Internet, Dr. Wernke found Dr. Adams’ website, read about her expertise in robotics, and contacted her.

“From an archaeological point of view, using UAVs to map sites and other medium scale landscape features, e.g., canals, field systems, road networks, could bring major advantages in data capture efficiency and resolution,” said Wernke, in an e-mail interview from Peru this morning.

“From an engineering/robotics perspective, developing a system that integrates a UAV with autonomous capabilities for both flight and high resolution image capture capabilities represents a significant research frontier.  As UAVs become more prevalent, they appear to be an increasingly cost effective means of archaeological mapping.”

Archaeology, the researchers say, is a fundamentally a spatial discipline.  Without an understanding of the context from which artifacts were left behind, scientists say very little about them other than perhaps something about their “style” and approximate date of manufacture.

“To say anything about past societies—past social dynamics—we need to be able to place the material traces of past peoples in their fullest context possible,” Wernke says. “Mapping is therefore at the core of archaeological research, whether we are talking about the distribution of rock chippage -- lithic debitage -- on a cave floor, the distribution of ash and domestic refuse in a house, the distribution of bodies in a mortuary complex, or the distribution of settlements in a regional landscape.”

The work completed this week is just the first phase of the Andes project for Wernke.

“This summer is focused on the preliminary research during which we are testing our flight planning algorithm for capturing images and our image processing/map development chain. While we are obtaining fantastic results, we expect to refine the algorithm and test it at other archaeological locations in the future,” he says.

In the future, there are even more spectacular uses of the UAVs planned.  “We are very interested in developing other unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities, potentially using other types of UAVs that will allow the archaeologist to map at a much smaller scale, such as areas exposed in excavations,” says Wernke.

“A longer term goal is to develop a user interface and technology system that will allow those without extensive technological and engineering background to deploy the UAV, capture images, and use the image processing chain to obtain their desired results.”

Indiana Jones, who was always limited to industrial age technology in his research adventures, would no doubt be quite envious.