Drone use in Archaeology

Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area

By Anthony Schirru

Drones are a developing technology that can be utilized extensively for resource conservation. At Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA), staff are using this cutting edge technology to document and digitally preserve cultural resources.

Lake Superior has a long and robust history of Indigenous people’s presence along its rugged north shore and also a more recent 20th century logging, fishing and mining history. Lake Superior NMCA is working towards preserving not only the natural beauty of the site but also to properly document and manage the anthropogenic features that dot the landscape. When working with these sensitive features it is extremely important to do so in a non-invasive way.

Geomatics Technician Anthony Schirru is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly called drones, and photogrammetry software to conduct flights and stitch together imagery to create 3D models and images of these sites. Working within guidelines set out by Parks Canada’s archaeology team, and in collaboration with local communities, he is utilizing mobile data collection methods and gathering accurate GPS information and aerial imagery that offers archaeologists a “frozen in time” product showcasing cultural resources. Along with a visual representation of resources, analysis can be performed that generates tangible and accurate results without having to step foot on or near these sensitive sites. Using this type of cutting edge technology in collaboration with traditional methods of archaeology allows the team to efficiently gather significant amounts of detailed data like never before.

To do this properly and get the desired results, it’s not as simple as sending a drone in the air, taking a few photos and landing… there is planning and preparation involved. It is important to understand what the desired output is and to plan the flight accordingly. A flight that is meant to gather base imagery is one way to tackle this type of project but a flight meant to develop 3D models requires a more fine-tuned approach. Ensuring proper overlap in images is essential to ensure the area is well covered and taking photos from several angles is also necessary to help build the image when processing it with the software.

The 3D models can then be generated and analyzed to gather data such as slope, volume, area, depth and height to name a few. For many cultural sites scattered throughout the NMCA it is important to monitor and track changes to determine if and how they are being degraded over time, through both natural forces and human interaction, so management action can be taken if appropriate.

An inventory of cultural resources is planned for Lake Superior NMCA over the next few years and resource conservation staff along with Parks Canada Archaeologists are looking forward to getting out and learning more about how this landscape has been used throughout the ages.

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