Drones

Laser Raptor drone performs autonomous nocturnal fossil hunts

Laser Raptor drone performs au...
The aircraft can reportedly detect fossils "as small as a thumbnail"
The aircraft can reportedly detect fossils "as small as a thumbnail"
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The aircraft can reportedly detect fossils "as small as a thumbnail"
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The aircraft can reportedly detect fossils "as small as a thumbnail"

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

Automated laser-scanning ‘hunter drone’ seeks out fossils, minerals and biological targets

1 comment
CraigAllenCorson
Amazing. But what if you want to hunt fossils in a forested area? Can it avoid tree limbs and such, autonomously? I suppose you could just clear-cut the forest, but the falling trees could then damage the fossils you're hunting.