August 2, 2012

Peru Drone Flight Could Bring 3D Archaeological Mapping

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Unmanned aircraft have seen extensive military and surveillance use in recent years and a new system being developed at Vanderbilt University could be the first step toward using drones for archeology.

The interdisciplinary research team announced they will begin testing their system, called SUAVe (Semi-autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), in Peru over an abandoned colonial-era town. The three dimensional maps the team is hoping to create would normally take years to complete.

"It can take two or three years to map one site in two dimensions," said Vanderbilt archaeologist Steven Wernke. "The SUAVe (pronounced SWAH-vey) system should transform how we map large sites that take several seasons to document using traditional methods. It will provide much higher resolution imagery than even the best satellite imagery, and it will produce a detailed three-dimensional model."

Instead of taking years, researchers said the SAUVe system aims to map the colonial town, which covers a swath of land the size of 25 football fields, in just a few minutes.

"You will unpack it, specify the area that you need it to cover and then launch it," Wernke added. "When it completes capturing the images, it lands and the images are downloaded, matched into a large mosaic, and transformed into a map."

Currently, tests of SUAVe are scheduled to take place through mid-August at the abandoned colonial era town of Mawchu Llacta in Peru.

Wernke is currently studying the town built in the 1570s in a former Inca settlement as a part of his research surrounding the transition from an Inca-dominated Peruvian society to one under Spanish colonial rule. Mawcu Llacta was mysteriously abandoned in the 19th century and is composed of building ruins arranged in regular blocks.

According to Wernke´s website, his project, “aims to combine the strengths of both archaeological and archival information to obtain a stereoscopic view of this crucial period of transition.”

The archeologist also said that the system developed in part by Julie Adams, an engineering professor at Vanderbilt, could enhance his research in unforeseen ways.

"Archaeology is a spatial discipline," Wernke said. "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."

Adams, who established the Human-Machine Teaming laboratory at Vanderbilt in 2003, expects SUAVe´s mapping capabilities to have an impact not only on the field of archeology, but in other areas of society, including assisting first responders.

"The device would be an excellent tool for evaluating the site of a major crisis such as Sept. 11 to decide how to deploy lifesaving resources more effectively," Adams said.

As aerial drones become more incorporated into society, not every person shares the same enthusiasm that Adams has for the technology.

As a sign of the times, a new bill put forth in Congress this week would require police to get a warrant for aerial drone use in certain types of surveillance situations. The proposal would also strengthen regulations surrounding the collection and use of data by the government and private companies.