If you were in Peru right now, at the long-abandoned Inca village of Mawchu, you might see something very modern flying over it – a Skate unmanned aerial vehicle. The aircraft is the key part of a system designed by a team from Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. Once perfected, it should be able to accomplish in 10 to 15 minutes what would take an archeological team two to three field seasons to complete.

The system is known as SUAVe, which stands for Semi-autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Created by engineering professor Julie A. Adams and archeologist Steven Wernke, it consists of the Skate paired with a custom software system. Using its onboard still camera, the UAV is intended to fly over archeological sites, creating high-resolution composite aerial maps.

Algorithms in the software let it to set its own flight patterns (incorporating geographical parameters supplied by the user), and allow it to compensate for factors such as wind speed, sun angle, and overlap between photos.

The aircraft itself can fit in a backpack, and the system as a whole is designed to be simple enough to use that no specially-trained engineers would be required to operate it – ideally, a lone archeologist could just hike into a remote location, pull out the UAV and enter the coordinates of the site, then launch it. Once its flight was complete, its photographs could be downloaded and automatically stitched together to form a detailed photo mosaic of the landscape.

The Skate is well-suited to tasks such as mapping, as its independently articulating motor pods allow it to switch back and forth between horizontal and vertical flight, and execute vertical take-offs and landings.

SUAVe is currently undergoing testing at Mawchu, and plans are in place for it to return there next year for further refinements. Along with its use in archeology, Adams believes that it could also be useful to people such as first responders at disaster sites, allowing them to deploy their resources most effectively.

UAVs are already in use for mapping various types of terrain, and have even been used to spot seals on ice floes.

View gallery - 2 images