Australasian Archaeological Geomatics
Working Group

Unmanned Aerial Systems

Prior to the development of automated Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) it was necessary to pay a pilot to fly over a site in an airplane (at great expense) or use a kite, balloon or an elevated platform. Today, UAS (also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) or drones) are quickly capturing the imagination of the general public. It is now commonplace to see them in a local park and they can be purchased at very low cost for these types of everyday uses.

For more scientific applications, an UAS that can carry heavier payloads, for a longer duration, are generally required for the significant mapping requirements of archaeologists and heritage managers. This of course increases the cost of the system. However, a well built UAS with an automated GPS navigation system and high quality camera can now be acquired that is within the budgets of most practitioners. Low end systems can be obtained for around $1000-1500. The sky is the limit (sorry) on the price of obtaining the best available systems on the market.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has provided explicit guidance on how, when and where drones can be legally flown. Drone operators (or potential users) should review this information at the CASA website to ensure compliance and maintain safe flight operations.

The recent advances in electronics, GPS and battery life has resulted in new opportunities to acquire low level aerial photography at a very reasonable cost. Temporal monitoring of threatened heritage or archaeological excavations is now a reality.

Beyond simple air photos, photogrammetric methodologies can be applied to create 3D landscapes. Additionally, thermal and near infrared cameras can also be mounted to even low end UAS. With more robust models LiDAR can be flown too. Advances in the technology are rapidly occurring and costs are dropping almost as quickly.

Introductory Readings

Fundamentals of Aerial Photogrammetry – Cornell University

Holden N., P. Horne and R. Bewley 2002 High-Resolution Digital Airborne Mapping and Archaeology. In R. Bewley and W. Raczkowski (eds) Aerial Archaeology: Developing Future Practice. Nato Series 1, 337:173–180.

Mozas-Calvache, A.T., J.L. Pérez-García, F.J. Cardenal-Escarcena, E. Mata-Castro and J. Delgado-García. 2012 Method for photogrammetric surveying of archaeological sites with light aerial platforms. Journal of Archaeological Science. 39(2):521-530.

Opitz, R.S. and D.C. Cowley (eds) 2013 Interpreting Archaeological Topography: 3D Data, Visualisation and Observation. Oxford:Oxford Books.

Shell C., 2002. Airborne High-Resolution Digital, Visible, Infra-Red and Thermal Sensing for Archaeology. In R. Bewley and W. Raczkowski (eds) Aerial Archaeology: Developing Future Practice. Nato Series 1, 337:181-195.

Verhoeven, G., M. Doneusb, Ch. Briesec and F. Vermeulen 2012 Mapping by matching: A computer vision-based approach to fast and accurate georeferencing of archaeological aerial photographs. Journal of Archaeological Science. 39(7):2060-2070. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.02.022.

Wilson, D.R. 2000 Air Photo Interpretation for Archaeologists. Stroud: Tempus.