Up in the Air

Archaeological sites that take years to map will be completed in minutes if tests of a new system being developed at Vanderbilt go well.

The Skate SUAS (Small Unmanned Aerial System), created by Aurora Flight Sciences, will be integrated into a larger system that combines a flying device that can fit into a backpack with a software system that can discern an optimal flight pattern and transform the resulting data into three-dimensional maps. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Vanderbilt archaeologist Steven Wernke and engineering professor Julie A. Adams.

They call the system SUAVe, for Semi-autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. It was partially financed by an Interdisciplinary Discovery Grant from Vanderbilt.

“It can take two or three years to map one archaeological site in two dimensions,” Wernke says. “The SUAVe [pronounced SWAH-vey] system should transform how we map large sites that take several seasons to document using traditional methods. It will provide much higher resolution imagery than even the best satellites are capable of, and it will produce a detailed three-dimensional model.”

If all goes as planned, this unmanned aerial vehicle will be able to fly over an archaeological site, photograph it, and quickly create a detailed 3D map of the area—a process that currently takes years.

The SUAVe system is compact and designed for easy use.

“You will unpack it, specify the area you need it to cover, and then launch it,” says Wernke, assistant professor of anthropology. “When it completes capturing the images, it lands and the images are downloaded, matched into a large mosaic, and transformed into a map.”

The algorithms developed for the project allow the SUAVe system to specify that the flight pattern compensate for factors such as wind speed, angle of the sun, and photographic details like image overlap and image resolution.

“The only way for this system to be cost-effective is for it to be easy enough to operate without an engineer on every site,” says Adams, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering. “It must be usable without on-site technical help.”

Tests were conducted last summer at the abandoned colonial-era town of Mawchu Llacta in Peru, and plans call for a return next year. Built in the 1570s at a former Inca settlement and mysteriously abandoned in the 19th century, the village of Mawchu is a 45-minute hike for the team from the nearby village of Tuti. Mawchu Llacta is composed of standing architecture arranged in regular blocks covering about 25 football fields square.

Wernke hopes the new technology will allow many archaeological sites to be catalogued very quickly because many are being wiped away by development and time.

“The SUAVe system should provide a way to create a digital archival registry of archaeological sites before it’s too late,” he says. “It will likely create the far more positive problem of having so much data that it will take time to go through it all properly.”

SUAVe also could have other applications, including the tracking of the progress of global warming and as a tool for first responders at
disaster sites.

“The device would be an excellent tool for evaluating the site of a major crisis such as Sept. 11 and helping decide how to deploy lifesaving resources more effectively,” Adams says.

 

PHOTO BY ANNE RAYNER

 

VIDEO: Hear more from the researchers.