SUAVe Technology Could Change Archaeological Mapping and More

Author:  Katie Campbell
Institution:  University of Florida
Date:  September 2012

An unmanned aerial vehicle called SUAVe – Semi-autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – could potentially change the way archaeological sites are mapped. What has historically taken years to complete will now take mere minutes -- and the possibilities do not end there.

SUAVe is the result of collaboration between archaeologist Steven Wernke and engineering professor Julie A. Adams, both from Vanderbilt University, which provided an Interdisciplinary Discovery Grant to partially fund the project. The new technology’s effectiveness will be tested through mid-August at Mawchu Llacta, Peru, an abandoned town built in the 1570s.

The vehicle, which fits into a backpack, will be combined with a software system to determine the best flight pattern and use the information gathered to create three-dimensional models of the archaeological site. Whereas this process currently takes years to complete – without generating anything like a perfect map – the SUAVe system will take only minutes to complete a map.

"It can take two or three years to map one site in two dimensions," Wernke said. "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 satellite imagery, and it will produce a detailed three-dimensional model."

Not only could this technology change the future of archaeological mapping, but Wernke also believes that SUAVe has the potential to be a tool for other uses, such as tracking the effects and development of global warming and as an aid at disaster sites. Resources like rescue workers or data collectors could then be better allocated accordingly.

The system was designed to be compact and easy to use. Adams explained how, in order for this technology to really be effective -- most importantly, cost-effective -- SUAVe has to be easy enough to use to eliminate the need for a trained engineer to operate the system.

The tests in Peru will determine just how effective overall the system will be. Any issues that do come up will be addressed in the lab and put to the test again next year, according to present plans.  

This science feature article was written under the guidance of JYI Science Writing Mentor Robert Aboukhalil.