Drones Are Bringing Thermal Imaging To Archaeology
The key to any successful archaeological dig is knowing precisely where to look before making the first move for excavation. The better the image of what lies below the surface before digging, the better the chance of starting a project in precisely the right place and getting the best results.
Work with drones and thermal imaging has shown that these UAVs could allow teams to work on a much more efficient, and effective dig that does not disturb the landscape or take up too much time and – ultimately – enable them to find the settlement or artifact they have been searching for.
Drones Provide A New Viewpoint Through Thermal Imaging And A New, Efficient Way Of Working On Archaeological Projects.
Geophysics and technological advances have long helped archaeologists map out a large area and provide a rough image of the layers and stones beneath – plotting out roads, walls and other regions indicating human activity.
The problem with this is that it is a long, laborious process. Drones have been celebrated in recent years in the way that they take a lot of the human effort, and human error out of surveying projects and they could now be seen as the ideal way to plot archaeological sites.
Most drones are now fitted with a camera of some kind – some providing strong HD images and 3D plotting. This has so far proved useful in land surveying for mining and in monitoring large construction sites, but the drones need another level of capability to go below the surface.
The answer is to add thermal imaging. The stones below the surface of a site holds heat differently to the soil and while this is invisible to the naked eye, a thermal imaging camera working in infrared will be able to see these hotter stones and create an image of their size and configuration.
The concept of using thermal imaging in this field is not new, as archaeologists have long understood the potential of the cameras and software. The problem has been putting it into practice.
Sending helicopters over a site is time consuming and expensive, other contraptions like cameras fitted to kites came with the risk of inaccuracy and manned parachute missions were just too dangerous. A controlled, methodical flight of a drone is quick and precise and saves a lot of time, money and effort when plotting out these landscapes.
There is no risk to any member of the team, and when the route is correctly calculated, a drone can fly across the landscape, taking a continual stream of images and return to the starting point in a short space of time. A high-end model with a 15 minute flight time can be up in the air, working in the area, and back with images before a piloted helicopter reaches the site.
These Drones Have Already Proved Useful At Important Sites.
The potential of drones for archaeology was tested at a New Mexico site called Blue J by a team from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Blue J is a place known as a settlement by Ancestral Puebloans, but the landscape and location mean that much of the site remained a mystery.
It was the ideal spot to test the capability of drones. The team carried out four missions across the day – working with different temperatures – and flew for just 11 minutes at a time.
The images produced clarified suspicions about the buildings that were buried in the region, but also provided a level of detail about the structure that had so far eluded them.
Some areas, such as the suspected ceremonial kivawere of a profound scientific significance. It was proved that not only can the cameras fitted to these drones detect the heat difference, they can provide clear images and maps that experts on the ground can use to great effect.
From there, the team can not only devise new theories about the areas and the lives of the people; they now know precisely where to dig to reach artifacts and uncover buildings.
Some scientists still hold on concerns about the reliability of drones and the skill needed to fly them successfully for a worthwhile mission, but it is clear that there is a lot of potential from simply strapping a good thermal camera to an ordinary drone.
As technology advances and drones become more stable, stronger and reliable on bigger missions. The images produced can only improve, and their place in archaeology can be assured.