Science & Environment

High flying technology to map Peru ruins

Image caption The onboard cameras would map the site in three dimensions

Archaeologists in Peru are getting ready to fly an unmanned craft that could radically speed up data gathering at historical sites.

Usually, "mapping" is an extremely time consuming process and can take several years to complete.

New technology developed by archaeologists and engineers from Vanderbilt University, in the US, should accelerate this process.

The device will be tested later this month at the Mawchu Llacta site.

By including cameras, Geographic Information System (GIS) technologies and programming specific flight algorithms to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by Aurora Flight Sciences, Professors Julie Adams and Steven Wernke hope to three-dimensionally map the archaeological site.

"To say anything about past societies—past social dynamics—we need to be able to place the material traces of past peoples in their fullest context possible. Mapping is therefore at the core of archaeological research," Prof Wernke told BBC News.

Mapping areas is often labour intensive and the site where the system will be tested would usually take about six months over several years to document.

The new UAV should enable the team to map the area in minutes, once the system is perfected.

The site will be a test of the UAV's flight capabilities.

"Mawchu Llacta is located at [a] high altitude of 4,100m (13,450ft), [making it] a good site for testing the upper altitude limits of current UAV technology," Prof Wernke said.

Archaeologically, mapping the area will help researchers understand the area, which was once the site of one of the largest forced resettlement programs in world history, as Spanish colonials moved 1.5 million native Andeans into planned towns in the 1570s.

Image caption Using existing mapping techniques, it would take up to six months to survey the site

"[The] urban and architectural planning were at the core of what the Spanish thought they were doing to 'civilize', convert, and subjugate the native Andean populace," he said.

In addition to enabling the researchers to quickly detail ancient landscape features, such as canals and roads, it will also allow 3D digital versions of the sites to be created.

These, aside from assisting the process of discovery, would enable the team to "virtually" preserve the site.

"Given the rate of looting and destruction of archaeological sites globally, it is also exciting as a means of recording a digital archival registry," co-developer Prof Julie Adams explained to BBC News.

Small enough to fit in a backpack, Professor Adams hopes the device would be able to be used by any researchers.

"We seek to provide capabilities that will allow the archaeologist, non-technically oriented individuals, to deploy the system on their own without technologists and engineers," she said.

Tom White, a researcher at Cambridge University, appreciated this aspect of the system.

"If you could just fly this thing, it'd be a cheap way of acquiring high-resolution aerial data," he told BBC News.

"It would be especially useful in those places that don't have the luxury of a map network like we have here [in the UK] thanks to the Ordnance survey and the Geological survey."

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