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Archaeologists using drones to map and protect sites in Peru

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Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo flies a drone over Cerro ChepénMariana Bazo/Reuters

In Peru, home to the spectacular Inca city of Machu Picchu and thousands of ancient ruins, archaeologists are turning to drones to speed up sluggish survey work and protect sites from squatters, builders and miners.

Remote-controlled aircraft were developed for military purposes and are a controversial tool in U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns, but the technology’s falling price means it is increasingly used for civilian and commercial projects around the world.

Small drones have been helping a growing number of researchers produce three-dimensional models of Peruvian sites instead of the usual flat maps – and in days and weeks instead of months and years.

Speed is an important ally to archaeologists here. Peru’s economy has grown at an average annual clip of 6.5 percent over the past decade, and development pressures have surpassed looting as the main threat to the country’s cultural treasures, according to the government.

Researchers are still picking up the pieces after a pyramid near Lima, believed to have been built some 5,000 years ago by a fire-revering coastal society, was razed in July by construction firms. That same month, residents of a town near the pre-Incan ruins of Yanamarca reported that informal miners were damaging the three-story stone structures as they dug for quartz…

Archaeologists say drones can help set boundaries to protect sites, watch over them and monitor threats, and create a digital repository of ruins that can help build awareness and aid in the reconstruction of any damage done.

“We see them as a vital tool for conservation,” said Ana Maria Hoyle, an archaeologist with the Culture Ministry…

Drones are already saving archaeologists time in mapping sites – a crucial but often slow first step before major excavation work can begin. Mapping typically involves tedious ground-level observations with theodolites or pen and paper…

In Peru, archaeologists say it is only a matter of time before drones replace decades-old tools still used in their field, and that the technology can and should be used for less destructive uses.

“So much of the technology we use every day comes from warfare,” said Hoyle. “It is natural this is happening.”

Today’s Luddites will continue to mess their knickers over this, of course. They get even more uptight when you point out they’re Luddites – without understanding the roots of the definition, no doubt.

Condemning a technology on its own because of how it’s used by some – and who is using it – is ridiculous. You may as well stop wearing shoes because Caeser’s legions wore them.

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Written by Ed Campbell

August 26, 2013 at 8:00 am

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