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Aug 11, 2012

Technology :: Drones map ancient Peruvian ruins

For the past month, a lunch-tray-sized aircraft has been skimming over Peruvian ruins snapping high-definition photos which are then stitched together to build a 3D map of the site.
The flyer is the brainchild of Steven Wernke and Julie Adams, archaeologist and roboticist respectively at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Wernke says that the craft will speed up site mapping drastically compared to traditional methods - a fiddly medley of theodolites, measuring tapes and photography which often requires repeat visits over two or three years during the dry season.

The Vanderbilt team is currently mapping the Peruvian ruins of Mawchu Llacta, an Inca settlement that was mysteriously abandoned in the 19th century. They plan to return next year to work out any kinks that crop up in the lab once they are back in Tennessee.

The flyer itself is a model from Aurora Flight Sciences called the Skate, kitted out with cameras and connected to a flight software system that determines the best flight patten in an area to be scanned, then lets the craft go to work without operator assistance. The whole setup fits in a backpack.

Although the drone will be mapping the site in 3D to a level of detail which Wenke says is better than "even the best satellite imagery", it won't be mapping the interior of the ruins.

To that end, Nadir Bagaveyev, a design engineer at XCOR Aerospace in Mojave, California recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to build a cheap laser radar (LiDAR) capable of being integrated into any robotics project and returning reliable three- dimensional spatial coordinates.

More expensive LiDARs work by measuring the length of time it takes a laser signal to complete a round trip between the point of measurement and surrounding features, calculating distances by multiplying the measured time by the speed of light. Bagaveyev is planning to make his system cheaper by doing away with the high precision timing equipment, and instead measuring the angles and distances between laser spots that reflect off the drone's surroundings, calculating a distance using trigonometry.

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