Feedback needed on Archaeology UAV guide

Hi folks,

I’m an archaeology PhD student based in the UK and I’m planning a project to bring together all the lovely aerial photographs of amazing and ancient places which are being taken by members of the UAV community. This is an open data project, no commercial gain is involved. A practical example is now on the blog.

The idea is pretty simple: an army of amateurs armed with UAVs and point-and-shoot cameras can cover far more ground than professional archaeologists ever could and do just as good a job. Together we could make a high-detail model of every site of historical significance in the world. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Incidentally, this also provides a perfectly noble reason to spend your kid’s trust fund on Arduino boards.

The biggest problem in doing all this is that everyone currently does things differently (different file formats, different types of GPS, lack of calibration information etc). That’s where the Guide to Conducting a Low-altitude UAV Survey comes in.

I’d like anyone who has an interest in this to feedback on the Guide (amateur or professional archaeologists, photographers, surveyors or just good old UAV-flyers) either via this forum (PDF version is attached) or by adding comments directly to the document via the link above.

A couple of things to bear in mind before you read the doc: this is the ‘full version’ we’ll produce a simpler ‘how-to’/single page version later. This first guide deals mostly with vertical photography & multirotors. Later guides will focus on techniques like oblique video and thermal imaging.

Thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to get involved. Stephen.


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    Dear Stephen,

    My lab does open source 3D scanning work with copters, perhaps you'd find our info useful.



    •  Thanks Stephen your software looks very interesting, cant wait to try it.

  • Hi. Your project sounds really interesting, but there is something of an issue in terms of integrating best practices for archaeological preservation/conservation (which is a fundamental and explicit responsibility of archaeologists, at least here in North America- check out the SAA and CAA websites for the specific ethical guidelines) and potentially publishing a mass of geotagged site photos. Pothunters (and vandals, in the case of rock art sites) are a real problem on this side of the Pond, and in many cases keeping site locations under the radar is the sites' best defense. A grand public uncontrolled global site database would be a death sentence to many sites of tremendous cultural and scientific importance. A castle sticking out of a hilltop is obviously not a big secret, but an undisturbed burial ground or village site out here in the BC backcountry might be best left incognito, with the minimum parties (ie. gov't and local First Nations community) informed as to its specific location.

    That said, we archys also have a responsibility to promote education and information, and in that sense your project would be outstanding, as long as it sticks to sites that are already well known to the public, or where increased public observation is more likely to reduce damage than to increase it. Your big hill forts, castles, Roman ruins, medieval old towns, etc., the Mississippian mounds, the well known Southwestern Pueblos, big Mayan sites on the tourist track, etc. would seem to be ideal candidates. But lesser known sites might be best omitted, or at least have their locations generalized to a region, rather than a UTM coordinate. You may have to liaise with the local archaeological authorities for each area to know which sites are/aren't OK to show, which would add a lot of thumb twiddling while you wait for the grinding gears of bureaucracy to deal with your query.

    All this being said, I think your guide to standardized mapping is a great idea, and could be used to get enthusiastic amateurs in touch with their local archaeologists so data that is collected can at least be used responsibly, AND the folks who are passionate about the past get to join in on the side of science rather than just being stonewalled because of their avocational status. So if I can be that irritating guy who suggests doing something but doesn't do it himself, a section on how a user should go about finding and contacting the local archaeological authority (maybe even a form letter) would be ideal.

    And now my coffee's cold and I better get back to my own research. Happy droning.

    • Wow, thanks for the informed reply Nick, there is a lot in there to consider. Here in the UK most sites of significance are pretty well know from the National Monuments Record and similar services. I'm sure we do have problems with site vandals but it's not really a high profile problem. I can (wrongly) assumed this would be the case elsewhere. The route you propose - omitting some sites sounds sensible, but perhaps a little difficult to achieve in practice due to the human effort required. Omitting some whole territories might be more doable in the short term.

      Just one more point, I hadn't envisaged the creation of a new central data repository - only using existing ones in a more standardised way, such as the Archaeological Data Service here in the UK. This might also help with the above problem by shifting the decision of which sites can be included to specialised data repository staff. Thanks again for the excellent point you raise.

      • Hi Stephen another UK undergrad here, I think for the UK you do not have any real issues by the time sites are disclosed either on ADS, HER or SMR canmore ect it is usually years after the excavations, survey ect have taken place, however disclosure of survey results should be up to HER/SMR which it is even for ADS grey lit commercial sites anyway and you would need to factor in some sort of protection for sites which were currently being worked or newly found. And I would stick to the UK although we have minimal theft and damage it it is still an issue certainly with sites where metal detectors may get results. But nothing compared to the wholesale theft from ww2 battlefields in the eastern European area or what goes on in central Asia.

        Interesting guide, have you ran it past BAJR forum guys who do good practice guides or any of the Kite using groups, and if you give permission i can send it to my head of department at Orkney and the Director of the Ramparts Scotland dig( they have used Kites,UAVS ect) I am attending for my course this summer. The camera choice info was very helpful for me as the main UAV stores have not given me any replies on emails regarding purchasing a setup yet.

        • Hi Garry,

          another very interesting post, thanks. Please do let BAJR and anyone else see the guide (remind them it's still in draft though). I have had good news from ADS and Jisc ( - together they intend to publish both the Guide (once finalised) and example UAV datasets (don't worry, selected sites won't be particularly 'sensitive'!).

          It may be, of course that authorities like HER/SMR first become aware of *new* significant sites though the non-destructive activities of amateur aerial surveyors. This would be an excellent outcome, providing the survey was done with the land owners permission. It some ways it would work like the Portable Antiquities Scheme: a cooperation between amateurs and professionals.

          It seems to me that on the whole, concerns over site disclosure are best addressed by whatever data repository is offered the survey results. The procedures which services like ADS already have address site protection (for example by publishing survey data after an embargo period in which the site is professionally assessed).

          Looking forward to hearing more feedback from your colleagues. Thanks again for the interest.

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