Drones help archaeologists in Peru survey Inca sites

27 August 2013
By Tereza Pultarova
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Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo flies a drone over an archaeological site

Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo flies a drone over an archaeological site

Archaeologists surveying ancient Peruvian sites have recently turned to drones to create 3D maps and speed up work.

According to researchers, drone-enabled acceleration of the data gathering processes is crucial as the world-famous remnants of the Inca civilisation, including the city of Machu Picchu, are increasingly suffering from looting and illegal trespassing of local villagers trying to turn land surrounding the sites into fields.

"We see them as a vital tool for conservation," said Ana Maria Hoyle, an archaeologist working at Peru’s Culture Ministry, about the drones. She explained the government's plans to invest into the technology to improve surveying as well as monitoring of the sites.

The data obtained through drones could help make more efficient decisions about the prospective sites, whether they can be opened for commercial proposes or protected and studied regarding the possible archaeological artifacts.

Previously, drones built by the Swiss company senseFly and US firms Aurora Flight Sciences and Helicopter World have been used to collect information about Perus's archaeological sites.

"With this technology, I was able to do in a few days what had taken me years to do," said Luis Jaime Castillo, a Peruvian archaeologist with Lima's Catholic University and an incoming deputy culture minister who plans to use drones to help safeguard Peru's archaeological heritage.

"We have always wanted to have a bird's-eye view of where we are working," said Castillo.

In the past, except for conventional ground based mapping methods, the researchers used to rent crop dusters and mount cameras onto kites and helium-filled balloons, however, the drones promise not only cost savings but also efficiency improvement of methods of aerial exploration.

"It's like having a scalpel instead of a club, you can control it to a very fine degree," said Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist with Harvard University who has worked at San Jose de Moro and other sites in Peru. "You can go up three meters and photograph a room, 300 meters and photograph a site, or you can go up 3,000 meters and photograph the entire valley."

Some archaeologists working at the high altitudes of the Andes have reported problems with the drones as they struggled to maintain their position in the high-altitude thin air. They have thus proposed to develop dedicated UAV’s for use in such conditions, using open-source platforms.

"There is an enormous democratisation of the technology happening now," said Steve Wernke, an archaeologist from the Vanderbilt University.

"The software that these things are run on is all open-source. None of it is locked behind company patents," he said.

Though originally developed for military purposes, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are increasingly penetrating other areas of human activities – including monitoring of disaster zones, fighting against mosquito spreads or archaeological surveying. In Peru the technology has already been used at six different locations.

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