Finding Ancient Amazonian Civilizations With Drones and Lasers

Instead of sending Indiana Jones, a team of international archeologists and researchers will be flying drones over Brazil’s Amazon rainforest to find clues that tell how ancient civilizations lived 3,000 years before the arrival of Europeans.

The drones will be equipped with a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) unit, which uses a laser to scan and map the terrain. LiDAR works by bouncing light off the ground and determining the distance of an object with the latency in the signal.  The hardware is so powerful that some of the light can shine trough the canopy and measure minute variations on the forest floor.

These laser-wielding, drone-piloting archeologists are trying to find geoglyphs, large geometric patterns in the ground, according to the BBC:

No-one is really quite sure what these earthen circles, squares and lines represent. Perhaps, they were ceremonial centres. But what is certain is that they are evidence of collective behaviour.

Geoglyphs in a deforested region of the Amazon. Wikipedia Commons photo

Geoglyphs in a deforested region of the Amazon. Wikipedia Commons photo

Hundreds of geoglyphs have been found in deforested regions of the Amazon, and there may be hundreds more waiting to be discovered. After their drone has found evidence of a geoglyph, the researchers will hike in and investigate the site further.

The team hopes that this data will be able to settle long-held disputes among academics about the nature of ancient societies in the Amazon.

Using LiDAR-equipped drones for mapping purposes is a useful, but not a new concept. Phoenix Aerial Systems of California is a company that develops drones and LiDAR systems to collect geospatial information. They demonstrate the process in this video, which is not unlike how archeologists in the Amazon will collect their data.

The U.S. military is also quite familiar with LiDAR and laser mapping technology. Back in 2012, Livescience.com wrote a story about how the Navy was using helicopter drones and LiDAR to hunt pirates.

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