Archaeology

Peru uses drones for archeological projects

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Writer Alejandro W. Sanchez explores Peru’s use of drones on ancient sites.

Peru uses drones for archeological projects

(Photo: Wilfredo Sandoval/El Comercio)

At a time when the usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for military purposes continues to be controversial around the world, Peru is successfully utilizing its drones for civilian projects. Specifically, Peruvian archaeologists are using drones to study pre-Inca ruins in the country’s Andes and Amazon.

The UAVs’ video and photography cameras are certainly helpful as they provide archeologists an “eye in the sky” for research, including locating ruins which are not easily spotted from the ground. Additionally, drones can help create 3D models of archeological sites.

The era of archeological drones in Peru has started thanks to the 2013 discovery of tombs that belonged to a pre-Inca culture called Chachapoyas. The tombs were located in El Tigre mountain, in the Amazonas region. A drone flew 300 meters and photographed 23 sarcophagi which, according to the Peruvian media, are part of a cemetery for the children of important families of the Chachapoya people. The drone that was used for this important discovery was a Phantom I, which is produced by the Chinese company DJI.

This successful usage of drones will likely entice the Peruvian government to acquire more of them. Already, there are reports that the Peruvian Ministry of Culture plans to purchase more drones for archaeological projects in the Lambayeque and La Libertad regions, where there is evidence of the presence of two other pre-Inca cultures: Lambayeque and Chimu. Besides the Chachapoyas finding, drones are already being used elsewhere in Peru. For example, the renowned Peruvian archeologist Luis Jaime Castillo, has flown drones to explore the San Jose de Moro site, an ancient burial ground that belonged to the Moche culture and which encompasses 150 hectares.

But as much as drones can aid Peruvian archaeologists, this new technology has a few drawbacks. An August 2013 report by Reuters explains, “[drone] batteries are big and short-lived, it can take time to learn to work with the sophisticated software and most drones struggle to fly in higher altitudes.” The last point is important as the Peruvian Andes are filled with ruins dating back to the Inca empire (i.e. the Machu Picchu citadel) and pre-Inca cultures. The fact that some drones cannot perform well at high altitudes is a problem that will hopefully be solved as new models are produced that can adapt to different environments.
As for learning how to fly drones, the Peruvian government is carrying out proactive initiatives. For example, this past March the Ministry of Culture organized a workshop on drone usage in Lima and also in the Tumbas Reales de Sipan Museum in the Lambayeque region. These workshops brought together over a hundred specialists that focus on different aspects of discovering and protecting Peru’s historical heritage; they learned how to utilize drones for aerial photography, 3D modeling and digital topography.

The aforementioned Castillo is now Peru’s deputy minister for culture and a supporter of using drone technology for archaeological purposes in the Andean nation. In a February interview, he highlighted how “now, for a few hundred dollars, you can buy a decent quadricopter with a camera. You’re going from nothing to everything.” Castillo was referring to how previously Peruvian archaeologists had to resort to sketchpads to draw the peculiarities and aspects of a site, but now a drone greatly facilitates this work.

Without a doubt, UAVs can have various positive effects on the future of Peruvian archeology. As the Andean country continues to enjoy a decade of economic growth, hopefully sufficient funds will be given to Peruvian cultural agencies in order to not only protect Peru’s rich history, but also strengthen future archeological projects.

You can follow W. Alejandro Sanchez on his Geopolitics & Geosecurity blog and on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

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