The Impact of Drones and Remote Sensing in Archaeology


By Anandita Ananthakumar

The room at the Rubenstein Library was packed. Even after the space was completely full, students were pouring in, which was a novel experience for me. At this point, I knew this workshop on drones was going to be one that I couldn’t miss.

Duke has been one of the leading institutions in research involving drones, to the point that the university has released a drone policy. At the Duke Drone Workshop on November 29th, Professor Maurizio Forte started off with the basics, giving us an overview on the general use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in archaeology.

To expect archaeologists to obtain data with physical collection alone is neither practical nor extensive. However, there’s a way to counter these unrealistic expectations and rising costs. With UAVs’ remote sensing capabilities, archaeologists can study sites and landscapes in a nondestructive manner in order to focus their limited resources on specific locations. In his work, Professor Forte utilized these devices for obtaining mapping, surveying land, applying data from remote sensing, 3D modeling and landscape reconstruction.

Professor Forte then launched into his two projects with drones. The first one was “Spreading Wings S 900,” a hexacopter with a flight time of 18 minutes. Based on camera alignment and flight height, archaeologists were able to process data from photos collected by this drone. The data was also used in creating digital terrain models, which are used for both mapping and creating prediction models. Through this technique, researchers were able to recognize unknown remains dating back to the late Neolithic era. Unfortunately, due to the coup attempt in Turkey and difficulty accessing excavation sites, much of the research involving drones in this area was suspended.

The second drone project that Professor Forte mentioned was a Vulci 3000. He commended Bass Connections, as some students involved in the data analytics were from an Information, Society & Culture project team. Most of this research was carried out in Rome, where the drones found some archaeological anomalies in Pozzatella. The team also discovered an abandoned Roman Hellenistic town as well as a Roman theater that was previously unknown.

In conclusion, Professor Forte stressed the advantages of using UAVs to study archaeology. This field of work is always generating new questions. Lastly, he noted that students who are interested in analyzing data are always welcome to work in his lab.

Anandita Ananthakumar, currently a Biomedical Engineering graduate student, grew up in Dubai and recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University at Buffalo, New York. She enjoys meeting new people, loves to travel and will never say no to chocolate. She is currently working as a student assistant in the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies.