05 November 2012

Rise of the drones

The drone revolution reached archaeology this summer. Archaeologists from Vanderbilt University are using a backpack-sized styrofoam drone called Skate to map the early colonial Peruvian site of Mawchu Lllacta from the air.

The drone can carry 1080p HD video cameras, infrared sensors, cameras, or other instruments. You can program its flight path to cover a desired area, then let it go. As Prof. Steven Wernke explains in the above video, can gather data equivalent to 3 seasons of ground-based mapping in about 10 minutes. What do you do with it then? Make a 3D model of the site, identify new features, really, whatever you want.
The Aurora Flight Sciences Skate drone
Another drone in archaeological use is the Microdrones md4-200, which was fitted with a stereoscopic camera in order to reconstruct some Scythian burial mounds in Russia and record this pyramid in Querétaro, Mexico.

Aerial surveillance never had such a funky soundtack.

Now I tend to think of drones as sinister, immoral military technology, which they are. Aurora brags that the Skate puts "first-hand intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for pop-up and fleeting threats... in the hands of the individual warfighter". They illustrate this with a goofy promo video, which dramatically reenacts a US soldier using a Skate to track down a trailer-dwelling redneck. Unconstitutional as hell, but that's a feature, not a bug. The interest in these things goes all the way to the top: the attentive news reader will have noticed Barack Obama's nauseating personal involvement in murder by drone in a number of countries. Drones are bad news for civil liberties and the rule of law.

On the other hand, many commercial technologies, including the interwebs you're reading this on, originated as US military projects, then trickled down to any number of useful consumer technologies. GPS on your iPhone, high-quality satellite imagery (Google Maps), and many more fit in this box. And drone tech is getting dirt cheap, spawning whole communities of DIY drone enthusiasts. Apparently Bill Gates wants to deliver vaccines to places in Africa using drones. And for the price of an iPad (the cheapest one mind you), you can go to Amazon and buy yourself a drone that you can control with your iPhone via wifi. I hear protesters in certain countries are using them to monitor the police now. The best part is, in the US flying your own spy drone is still legal!

Anyway, from this point of view it's no surprise that archaeologists are taking up the technology. It makes me a little sad that all those pre-digital age site mapping skills I learned as a wee sprout are now transcended, but the alternative is so much better. Finding sites, mapping sites, monitoring conservation, maybe someday even doing geophysical survey - all these things can be done at high quality for extremely low cost compared to a few years ago. I predict this technology will be close to mandatory within a few years.

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