Indiana Drones and the next upgrades


Following our walk in the civilian applications of unmanned aerial vehicles, let’s focus on an unexpected field: archaeology.

Indeed, small drones do provide significant topographic capabilities thanks to various factors, including: Very fast implementation on the ground; accurate flight paths in very small or risky areas; low noise, low cost and safety; reduced impact on the environment; and enhanced flight performance.

These capabilities can make UAVs useful for archaeological investigations. French company ArchéoKopter has even created a software programme named Indiana specifically designed for dig site mapping. UAVs have already drawn the attention of archeologists.

One example is the initiative of Nicolas Poirier, head of research at CNRS and based in Toulouse. Specializing in archeology in the “TRACES” unit Works and Archaeological Research on Cultures, Spaces and Societies, he opted to boost its missions based on an “octocopter” equipped with a thermal camera. Aero-archaeology allows understanding sites through its quick wide overviews.

Aerial photos do not necessarily reveal what lies underground. But a thermal camera reveals temperature discrepancies that help detect the presence of remains or ruins that significantly alters the temperature at the surface. Nicolas Poirier turned to the company Flying Eye, which provided equipment to measure the dig site. It provided also an opportunity to fly over the site Silla Del Papa in Spain, known for its difficult access, or in South Africa on the sites of Sterkfontein and Kromdraai.

Beyond the interests that such technologies bring for national heritage preservation, UAVs can also allow industrials and in particular civil engineering to avoid archeological sites when planning construction route and sites, which results in both time and cost saving.

Photogrammetric technologies are helpful in many sectors and their applications are really diverse. Photogrammetry is a mix of different areas such as topography, photography, and avionic skills. For example, EDF Energy used a Gatewing x100 UAV for the construction of a nuclear power plant based at Hinkley Point in Sommerset (Sout-West United Kingdom).

The use of a UAV has made it easier to assess the construction logistics, make an inventory of materials, and realize 3D mapping, contour lines and coastal erosion monitoring. The advantages of using drones were numerous: easy access to all areas even contaminated ones, time saving and risk reduction. Up to ten times more precise than satellites, more versatile and cheaper to operate, industrial drones are beating undoubtedly airplanes or satellites at collecting data or detailed site images. Unlike satellite, drones can operate under cloud layers. Of course, UAVs can’t beat those platforms for mapping wide area, but snapshots can be repeated more frequently and with greater accuracy.

Data collected at 1 photo per second or less for air speed of 4 to 5 m/s consists of thousands of photos geo-referenced over very wide areas and at an extremely competitive cost. According to Moyers & Company, North American energy companies are planning to use drones to monitor their pipelines – in part to check for potential gas or oil leaks, but also to limit “third-party intrusions”. The Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), a multi-national organization funded by some of the world’s largest pipeline operators like BP, Shell, TransCanada and Enbridge, is leading efforts to research and develop unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology for pipeline building and subsequent monitoring.

The PRCI has been working with the American Petroleum Institute and the Interstate Natural Gas Association on drone research for the last two years, according to PRCI President Cliff Johnson. He says researchers are currently running test flights.

Even if archaeology seems to be a small market segment, it could be an interesting use for civil engineering at large. Monitoring of construction would be a very interesting market where innovative sensors may receive a warm welcome from the industry.