On the Utility of Drones and Photogrammetry

One of the things I’ve been increasingly interested in is how to collect good data quickly, easily, and cheaply. Any data. A concurrent interest is a constant evaluation of any work that I’m doing (ok, and work that others are doing) to try and think if it is really necessary. This can run the gamut from questioning using fancy toys in the field (do you really need to gpr that portion of the site, or do you just want to do it?) to talking myself out of doing conference papers (am I talking to say something, or am I just saying something to talk?). Suffice it to say, I think the combination of using dslr cameras, drones, and structure from motion processing software is gearing up to provide archaeologists excellent, cheap, and quick in-field data collection methods. Moreover, it seems reasonable to suggest that these data collection methods will soon become necessary parts of the archaeology toolkit, perhaps as important as trowel, bucket, and shaker screen.

The FAA recently released its FAA Aerospace Forecast for Fiscal Years 2016-2036 and drones, or UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems), figured prominently in the projections. One take away from looking at the report is that the FAA seems to definitely see the need for better future integration of drone use in the airspace.


Graph from FAA Aerospace Forecast FY 2016-2036.

Drones are going to stick around. Which also means that more people will have access to them and we can expect the price of drones with good capabilities (high-quality camera, gps-enabled, etc.) to get into a more reasonable cost neighborhood for most folks. The drone that I’ve been using (DJI Phantom 3 Advanced) has already dropped close to $300 in price since we purchased it at work about a year ago. Now that the new Phantom 4 line is out I imagine the price will drop further. And of course there are plenty of other vendors out there with drones falling into a wide array of price points. The point is, it’s going to get easier and easier to get a drone and do things with it.

Couple your drone with some great photogrammetry software and you have the ability to 3D model sites in a matter of minutes, create DEMs, Orthomosaics, NDVIs…and the list keeps groing. The software can be costly, but a standard educational license from one of the most popular processing packages, Agisoft Photoscan, is $59. That’s a steal. It’s especially great when you factor in how responsive and helpful the company is as well as how active their forums are.

All this is to get to the point that I wanted to upload a recent research poster and I guess talk about things I wanted to talk about and especially how useful these tools can be. I’ll probably keep talking about this over and over until something else shiny catches my attention.



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