Laser Raptor drone performs autonomous nocturnal fossil hunts
Although many fossils are simply lying exposed on the soil's surface, finding all of them would require a great deal of walking over varying terrain. A new autonomous hexacopter drone could help, as it uses a laser to hunt for fossils at night.
Called the Laser Raptor, it was developed by Hong Kong University's Asst. Prof. Michael Pittman and the Foundation for Scientific Advancement's Thomas G. Kaye. It utilizes an existing process known as Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence.
During daylight hours, the drone is preprogrammed with a flight path that covers the area to be searched. The aircraft is then launched at night, autonomously following the programmed GPS waypoints while maintaining an altitude of 4 meters (13 ft) above the ground.
As it flies, it shines a laser down onto the soil. If any fossils are present in the area being scanned, their unique mineral content will cause them to fluoresce while the surrounding rocks and soil remain dark. The fossil hunt is performed at night in order to keep sunlight from interfering with the laser light.
After the drone's flight is over, a computer analyzes footage shot by its integrated downwards-facing video camera. If any telltale fluorescent signals are detected, their GPS coordinates are noted so that paleontologists can later travel to those places. Still photos of the ground, which were illuminated by an onboard strobe light, help the scientists to locate the fossils.
The Laser Raptor has already been successfully tested in the badlands of Arizona and Wyoming. Down the road, it could reportedly be adapted to also search for things like precious metals, gemstones, or even archeological artefacts.
A paper on the technology was recently published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution. There are more technical details on the drone, in the video below.
Source: The University of Hong Kong
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