Drones: The New Jumping-Off Point


As I am traveling Europe in the Spring Semester, I thought it would be worthwhile to buy a drone and document each country I visit via video. Fortunately for me, drones have advanced dramatically since they first started to make an appearance in the consumer market a few years back. At first, drones were hard to fly, finicky, and unstable; the cameras that were equipped were low-quality, grainy, and often only took pictures directly below where the drone was flying. Now, however, quadcopters, the most popular type of drones, have made leaps and bounds, and have found their use not only for entertainment, film, and journalism, but also in the humanities.

While documenting most archaeological sites, aerial photography was either done in low-resolution via satellite, or expensively through an aerial photography pilot. As drones are very cost-effective, easy to transport, and capture high quality images, the use of drones to conduct digital surveys at archaeological sites is becoming increasingly popular. As drones can capture many photos of a site, these photos can then be processed to create one, larger, and scientifically accurate, 3D immersive sitemap (UCLA). Through photogrammetry, a point cloud is created, followed by a mesh and then a texture, to create the most realistic representation of a site. Since most drones are equipped with GPS, the software used to combine the photos also has an easier time mapping where each photo was taken, making the photogrammetry even more accurate. As a result, drones help to increase accuracy of locations of structures and their relation to others even in complex topography; this creates the most accurate and immersive digital experience of a site to date (UCLA).

These aerial 3D maps can act as off-site virtual laboratories for researchers to reference from their computers, for reference for scholars, or as a preservation tool alone (UCLA). Additionally, this makes me think how drone-assisted 3D aerial site-mapping can be used as an educational tool. Branching off of my digital museum idea, each site could be uploaded to a single website, giving you a virtual tour of practically any location that has been mapped!

Fortunately, drone advancements continue each day. Dave Lester, for example, who made Omeka, an open source digital archive of historical photographs and stories, started the “Drone Lab”. He and a team of graduate students at UC berkeley found ways to hack the drone to control it via voice and tracking head movements. He also learned to make the drone follow written computer code, where each flight path can be made via Javascript. This opens the door to smoother and more accurate mapping of remote sites, since the pilot can focus on taking photos, instead of on flying.

The most interestingly relevant project I found in regards to drones in the study of humanities, is the Aerial Innovation and Robotics Lab, a collective at Smith College for experimentation, development, and inquiry into how drones might function in the classroom and the humanities. The AIRLab see colleges and universities as organizations outside of government and private business that makes them perfect candidates to research, experiment with, and develop policy around drone use in education and in general. As professor Poehler has taught us how emerging relations between humans and robotics, such as the structure sensor and google glass, helps to aid the digital humanities, those organizing AIRLab see civilian drones as a new starting-point with immense potential.

Professor Eric Poehler, interestingly enough, is a project organizer of AIRLab, along with Jon Caris, Director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at Smith College, and Jeffrey Moro, Senior Post-Baccalaureate Resident in Digital Humanities.


AIRLab: http://5colldh.org/fac-staff-projects/airlab/

UCLA Digital Archaeology Surveys and the Immersive Experience: http://www.cdh.ucla.edu/news-events/digital-archaeology-surveys-and-the-immersive-experience/

Dave Lester and Drone Lab: https://gigaom.com/2013/05/10/open-source-flight-from-the-drone-lab-to-twitter-qa-with-dave-lester/

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