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The Rise of Drone Technology in Archaeology

Last updated on

July 17, 2020


    The Rise of Drone Technology in Archaeology

    When we think of archaeology, it’s not uncommon to picture Indiana Jones clutching an artefact, running away from an approaching boulder. However, in practice, archaeology is much closer to home; and it employs a lot more technology than you might think. In the past few years, that technology has begun to include drones. Let’s take a look at the rise of drone technology in archaeology.

    This article covers the interesting ways in which archaeologists, both professional and amateur, are using commercial drones to detect and map potential sites (places where there are archaeological features) and features (anything of interest that relates to the past, most often man made). The benefits of drones for archaeologists are numerous: they are cheap to use, offer an array of choice regarding cameras, and the software used to process images is widely available.

    Don your fedora and whip, and read on to discover how you can use drones to uncover interesting chunks of history, and which drones are the most suitable for doing so!

    In this article you will learn about;

    • How drone technology can be used in archaeology
    • Which drones can be used for archaeology
    • The difference between fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones

    This article will show you a range of our bespoke drones suited to archaeological survey and other survey activities. From the Parrot ANAFI Work to the the DJI Phantom 4 RTK we have the drone solution for you. Contact us here to discuss your needs with one of our experts.

    Drone Winter Flying


    The Drone Takeover:

    As we said before, the use of drones and drone cameras for surveying, inspection, and mapping of archaeological sites has increased in recent years. The high-resolution offered by drone photography allows archaeologists of all abilities and locations to discover and analyse archaeological sites. In using drone mapping software, such as PIX4D, AIRMAP, or DJI 4.0, to programme flight paths, it has never been easier for archaeologists to recognise certain features.

    This is done through a few different techniques, such as fieldwalking and aerial photography. Fieldwalking is where a group of people walk across an area of open land they believe to be of archaeological interest. This usually uses parallel lines at a set distance apart. The use of drones would revolutionise this practice by allowing surveyors to generate aerial photos to detect possible areas of interest, before they head out in their muddy boots.

    This would eliminate fatigue in the field, which could lead to a failure to detect certain features if you’re not careful. This has even been proven by the University of Cambridge, who stated that some of their researchers are trying to “combine machine learning and high-resolution drone imagery” to maximise field survey techniques.

    In 2018 the conservation charity National Trust for Scotland, which administers the islands, conducted a detailed drone survey of the islands to precisely locate archaeological features. Over the course of five days, a state-of-the-art fixed wing drone flew a total of about 250 miles, collecting 4,000 ultra-high-resolution images and 420 million data points. The team then used a proprietary super computer to analyze the data, creating an incredibly detailed 3-D map of the connected islands. “This not only shows detailed topography and vegetation at a game-changing three centimeters [1.18 inch] resolution but, with over 420 million data points, is currently the world’s largest complete island dataset captured by drone,”.

    However, it’s important to notice that whilst drone cameras and drone mapping software have been greatly beneficial to archaeologists, some areas of archaeological interests, such as Scheduled Ancient Monuments or registered heritage sites, may not permit the use of drone technology. So, whilst you can try your hand at spotting some archaeological features, make sure to always check rules and regulations!

    Which Drone Should I Use?

    Okay, so you’ve gotten this far- that’s promising. That means you’re still interested in working out how you can use drones to find your own little piece of history. Now, the question is: which drone should you use? In this section we’ll take you through the different drone models we have available, such as the Parrot and DJI, whilst comparing their strengths so you can find the perfect model for you.

    Fixed Wing Drones:

    The first type of drone we’ll explore is the ‘fixed wing’. As we’ve explained in previous posts, the fixed-wing has a rigid structure which creates lift under the wing in response to forward airspeed. It comes in three types: straight, swept, or delta, and can fly uninterrupted over long distances, as opposed to just hovering.

    The camera on fixed wings is usually fixed, meaning that it’s highly resistant to wind. This makes these types of drones ideal for drone mapping and surveying at large landscape scales, but does mean that it’s less suited to vertical features such as buildings, monuments or cliffs.



    Wingtra PPK

    The Wingtra PPK VTOL is a fully autonomous fixed-wing drone designed specifically for long-distance surveying applications. Fully autonomous, the Wingtra allows a flight to be pre-planned via the intelligent WingtraPilot software. With the touch of a button, the Wingtra is up in the air and automatically capturing surveying data.

    For example, in a single one-hour flight, the WingtraOne can cover 130 ha (320 ac), which is equal to 240 football fields and deliver maps at GSDs below 1 cm/px (0.4 in/px) with absolute accuracy down to 1 cm (0.4 in).

    Unlike other fixed-wing drones available, the WingraOne can take off vertically like a quadcopter, even on difficult terrain. This eliminates the need to hand launch the aircraft or use catapults, making the Wingtra an ideal solution for use in locations with confined takeoff areas.

    Capable of flying for up to 55 minutes, the Wingtra is tailor-made to cover large distances of up to 400ha at 3cm/px. The Wingtra VTOL is compatible with a variety of payloads including the Sony QX1, Sony RX1RII and the Micasense RedEdge.

    For more information on the Wingtra PPK click HERE.


    Multi-Rotor Drones:

    The second type of drone we’ll explore is a multi-rotor drone. These drones are made of a central body with multiple rotors which power propellers to fly and manoeuvre the drone. There are usually four rotors (a quadcopter), but there can be as many as six or eight (hexa- or octocopter).

    Compared to the fixed-wing, these drones can mount high-quality cameras as opposed to having a fixed camera, which means you can get more detail in vertical and oblique frames.

    These drones are, like the fixed-wing, resistant to wind, but the subtle differences in manoeuvrability and techniques make the multi-rotor more suited to drone survey and mapping at a site scale, as opposed to a larger landscape. Unlike the fixed-wing, multi-rotors can be applied to survey and map vertical features, such as buildings.


    Parrot ANAFI Thermal: 

    This first pick is ultra light, ultra compact, and so easy to use. This thermal imaging drone enables its user to act immediately or to analyse recorded photos. Designed to revolutionise drone mapping technology, the Parrot ANAFI Thermal adapts to your needs.

    With its compact folding design, the ANAFI Thermal unfolds easily and is ready for use in just 3 seconds! Take it with you on every task, where its reliability and precise controls render it suitable for the toughest of jobs. This drone is perfect for surveying larger areas, thanks to its features such as:

    A 4K HDR Camera, which is embedded with a 21MP Sony sensor. This allows accurate inspection of buildings, illustrative elements, or larger searches and surveying/ inspection of whole areas. This enables translation into 3D modelling, which is suitable for archaeologists looking to compose 3D models and photogrammetric sketches of sites.

    A FLIR Lepton 3.5 thermal-imaging camera module, which is integrated into the drone’s gimbal. This market-leading product allows you to capture and measure those hard to spot features, as each environmental element appears in high precision with temperature differences visible on the image.

    180 degree and X3 Zoom Tilting Cameras: The gimbal of this drone tilts vertically to +/- 90 degrees, meaning you can inspect the most precise areas around and underneath structures. Thanks to the zoom feature, you can inspect larger landscapes in minute detail completely safely.

    For more information on the Parrot ANAFI thermal click HERE.

    Parrot ANAFI Work: 

    This next model is perfect for users wanting a lightweight, on-the-go drone. Suitable for amateurs and hobbyists, as well as professionals and commercial operators, the Parrot ANAFI Work is a perfect first-time buy, boasting affordability at under £1000.

    With a 25-minute battery life and max charging power of 24W, the ANAFI Work displays an array of useful features for those wanting a perfectly mobile drone, including:

    A top speed of up to 32 mph, enabling it to resist high winds and troublesome weather.

    A carbon-reinforced frame and camera that has temperature resistance from the range of -10 degrees celsius to 40 degrees celsius.

    A high-quality, 4K HDR camera, providing precision and clarity in your pictures. This provides rapid inspection, video production, and intervention monitoring.

    A 21 MP camera which can take shots with a rotation of 180 degrees, a zoom of 3X and a super impressive Hyperlapse mode. The camera is also equipped with a Lossless Zoom of 1.4x in 4K, and 2.8x in full 1080p HD, so you can really get the utmost precision.

    An ultra-compact travel bag containing: the Parrot quadcopter, Parrot Skycontroller 3, and two additional smart batteries which provide 1 hours 15 minutes of flight time. Thanks to the on-the-go charging mechanism, you can use a power bank to charge your batteries!

    For more information on the Parrot ANAFI work click HERE.

    DJI Phantom 4 RTK: 

    This impressive multi-rotor model is specifically tailored to aerial survey and 3D mapping; techniques used by archaeologists. So, whilst a little pricier, this is undoubtedly one of the most highly-recommended models for using drones in archaeological surveys.

    The Phantom 4 RTK is built with surveyors and professionals in mind, incorporating a brand new real-time kinematics (RTK) system. This maintains positional accuracy and delivers survey-grade data. The Phantom 4 also revolutionises DJI’s previous technologies, achieving a higher standard of efficiency; the data obtained is centimetre-accurate, and you don’t even need as many ground control points!

    Highly specific for aerial surveying, 3D drone mapping, drone inspection, and photography, the Phantom 4 RTK incorporates the following features:

    A max flight time of 30 minutes and max wind speed resistance of 10 m/s: this means that the Phantom 4 RTK is efficient and durable.

    A mapping accuracy that meets the requirements of the Accuracy Standards for Digital Orthophotos Class III.

    A camera complete with a 1” CMOS, and 20M effective pixels. The camera also operates a temperature range from 0 to 40 degrees celsius, making it suitable to a wide range of survey climates.

    A MicroSD support card, with a max capacity of 128 GB… take survey photography and videos to your heart’s content… it’s unlikely you’ll run out of storage!

    The DJI Phantom 4 RTK comes with:

    The Aircraft body

    Remote controller

    A pair of propellers

    2 x Phantom 4 High Capacity Batteries
    1 x DJI Cendence Battery
    1 x Phantom 4 RTK Charging Hub.

    For more information on the DJI Phantom 4 RTK click HERE.

    AceCore Neo – inquire for price

    While we have an excellent and varied range of DJI models, we also have the AceCore Neo. This is less specified and instead widely suited to a range of drone photography, survey, and inspection practices… and even film-making!

    The AceCore is complete with rainproof technology, allowing you to use this drone in many different weather conditions… something archaeologists face every day, especially in Britain! The drone’s motors are also inverted to better protect them from adverse weather conditions.

    The Neo comes with a range of useful features, such as:

    Manufactured from 93% carbon fibre, providing a lightweight and robust quality, whilst being empowering and stable.

    A weight of 6.85 kg… but don’t be fooled – though lightweight, the model is incredibly wind resistant because of its eight powerful brushless motors, and vibration damping technology.

    Bespoke payload integration, which renders the model suitable for a range of activities such as high-end filmmaking, drone inspection, and aerial surveying.

    A maximum flight time of 25 minutes, allowing you to do a quick sweep of the area and get tons of useful footage.

    For more information on the AceCore Neo click HERE.

    The Bottom Line:

    This article has shown you a range of our bespoke drones suited to archaeological survey and other drone survey activities. From Parrot ANAFI Work to the the DJI Phantom 4 RTK we have the drone solution for you. Contact us here to discuss your needs with one of our experts.

    Don’t hesitate… grab yourself a drone and be your own Indiana Jones. Get involved in some of the most exciting history hunting you can… it may be right on your doorstep!


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