Published On: Thu, Aug 2nd, 2012

Scientists test new archeological plane over Peru

A new drone system that could map  archeological sites in minutes is ready for its first field tests in a remote  region of Peru.

The Aurora Flight Sciences unmanned aerial  vehicle, developed at Vanderbilt University, will be be used to create 3D maps  of the former Inca settlement of Mawchu Llacta.

The project, an interdisciplinary  collaboration between Vanderbilt archaeologist Steven Wernke and engineering  professor Julie Adams, is hoped to slash the time it takes to survey  archaeological sites.

They call it SUAVe – for Semi-autonomous  Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. It was partially financed by an Interdisciplinary  Discovery Grant from Vanderbilt.

‘It can take two or three years to map one  site in two dimensions,’ Mr 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.’

The SUAVe system is compact and is designed  to be easy to use. ‘You will unpack it, specify the area that you need it to  cover and then launch it,’ Mr 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.’

The algorithms developed for the project  allow the SUAVe system to specify the flight pattern to compensate for factors  such as the wind speed, the angle of the sun and photographic details like image  overlap and image resolution, Prof Adams said.

‘The only way for this system to be  cost-effective is for it to be easy enough to operate that you don’t need an  engineer on every site,’ she added. ‘It has to be useable without on-site  technical help.’

Tests are scheduled from mid-July to  mid-August at the abandoned colonial era town of Mawchu Llacta in Peru, and  plans call to return next year after any issues that arise are addressed in the  lab.

Built in the 1570s at a former Inca  settlement and mysteriously abandoned in the 19th century, the village of Mawchu  is a 45-minute hike for the team from the nearby village of Tuti. Mawchu Llacta  is composed of standing architecture arranged in regular blocks covering about  25 football fields square.

‘Archaeology is a spatial discipline,’ Mr  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.’

Mr Wernke hopes that the new technology will  allow many archaeological sites to be catalogued very quickly, since many are  being wiped away by development and time.

‘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.’

SUAVe could also have other applications,  including the tracking of the progress of global warming and as a tool for first  responders at disaster sites.

‘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,’ Prof Adams said.

(Daily Mail)

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