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Drone can do archaeological mapping flight

Tests of an unmanned drone could lead to surveys of archaeological sites in minutes that currently take years to complete, U.S. researchers say.

Tests are under way in Peru of a new system being developed at Vanderbilt University that combines a flying device that can fit into a backpack with a software system that can discern an optimal flight pattern and transform the resulting data into three-dimensional maps, a university release reported Wednesday.

The flying drone has been dubbed SUAVe, for Semi-autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.

“It can take two or three years to map one site in two dimensions,” Vanderbilt archaeologist Steven Wernke said.

“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.”

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


Test flights are being conducted at the abandoned colonial-era town of Mawchu Llacta in Peru, researchers said.

There is a need for archaeological sites to be catalogued very quickly since many are being wiped away by development and time, Wernke said.

“The SUAVe system should be a way to create a digital archival registry of archaeological sites before it’s too late,” he said. “It will likely create the far more positive problem of having so much data that it will take some time go through it all properly.”

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