Aerial panoramic spring view of the ruined Ancient

Role of Drone Technology in Archaeology Explained

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

What comes to mind when you picture drones? If you’re like most people, you may be picturing a robot flying around in the air.

Human beings possess the innate desire to uncover lost civilizations and archaeology provides a powerful platform for such discoveries.

Today, the use of drone technology to identify archaeological features on a site is undeniable.

More and more professional and amateur archaeologists worldwide have realized the importance of drone technology in archaeology. For example, in Venezuela, mapping of rock engravings by researchers was done using drone technology.

Below is a general overview of drones’ capabilities in archaeology:  

  • Fly at high altitudes
  • Provide high-resolution photography
  • Cover vast areas of land (especially higher quality drones)
  • Penetrate dense vegetation
  • Generate 3D Models Of Sites

Drone Technology in Archaeology:

Drone software is mainly used for surveying in archaeology. In other words, archaeologists use drones to determine if a site or landscape has archaeological features that warrant excavation.

As such, they no longer have to rely on fieldwork or standard reconnaissance to detect, map and analyze archaeological features of a site or landscape.

Drones used in aerial photography or GPS drones are relatively easy to maneuver and make a great addition to an archaeological tool kit.

In addition, these drones have centimeter-based accuracy and are portable. Lastly, data collected can be processed using widely available imaging software.

Aerial Archaeology:

Aside from drones, also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), hot air balloons and kites have been used in aerial archeology.

Before drone technology, archaeologists employed these devices in aerial archaeology. But what makes aerial photography an essential aspect of archaeology?

The answer is simple: at times, the only way for researchers to pinpoint archaeological features in an area is from the air and not the ground.

Take kites, for instance; they are relatively inexpensive, have minimal operational costs, and can carry a few kilograms of payload.

A camera can be attached to a kite to take aerial photographs. However, steady winds must be present to effectively use kites in this regard.

As early as 1930, archaeologists used hot air balloons in aerial photography, and this device gained popularity in the 1960s.

Balloons need light wind conditions to hold them steady at a site of interest. In addition to light winds, archaeologists have to factor in the cost of hydrogen or helium to operate the balloons. That said, they’re easy to maintain and use.

Compared to kites or balloons, drones can cover more ground, thus providing a broader perspective in site surveys.

It can be time-consuming (days or weeks) to use devices that mainly rely on steady or light winds to work well, as opposed to using a drone that can be programmed to perform tasks on its own in a matter of minutes or hours.

Researchers can also schedule flights in advance using specific GPS coordinates with drones.

Other UAVs that can be used in aerial photography include remotely controlled airplanes or helicopters. That said, they’re quite expensive to use, making drones the more suitable option for aerial photography.

Aerial Archaeology
Aerial Archaeology

Photogrammetry Application in Archaeology:

Today, the photogrammetry application of drone imagery in archaeology is becoming more and more popular. Information collected from aerial photography of archaeological sites is usually two-dimensional and can be used in data analysis.

However, 3D modeling gives archaeologists a more detailed illustration of archaeological features or objects.

Here is an in-depth look at 3D modeling.

3D Modeling:

Photogrammetry involves measuring the distance between objects on a site survey accurately.

You may be thinking aloud, asking yourself, ‘How can the act of taking photographs create 3D imagery in the archeology field?’ The answer is simple: 3D data can be generated using information from two-dimensional images.

However, photogrammetry is essential in creating 3D models of data collected. Generally, photos from aerial drone imagery are used to make 3D representations of surfaces.

Additionally, drones can take hundreds of high-resolution images in a given area. And this is one of the main reasons drone technology in archaeology is a worthwhile investment.

Besides more precise data collection, 3D modeling allows researchers to analyze data remotely, which can be cost-effective.

Furthermore, researchers can make decisions faster based on this data and streamline data sharing across the team.

Excavations are costly and gradual, but when data is combined with 3D technology, planning excavations at a potential site or landscape can become more efficient.

Moreover, photogrammetry can offer the perspective of previously documented sites with outdated or low-quality data. Subsequently, this may lead to discovering artifacts or remnants of ancient structures.

A lot goes into fieldwork during a survey, such as using handheld cameras to take photos, mapping, documentation, and data analysis.

Every recorded detail has the potential to unravel ancient secrets and mysteries. Again, 3D modeling is a more efficient method of collecting and analyzing data than traditional ground surveying methods through fieldwork.

3D Modelling from drones
3D Modelling

LiDAR Technology in Archaeology: What Is LiDAR Archaeology?

There are times when dense vegetation, trees, or forest cover can hinder the identification of archaeological features. And this is where LiDAR technology comes into play.

Drones attached with laser sensors can effectively perform archaeological surveys despite dense vegetation. Keep in mind that Lidar technology can also be used in areas without vegetation or forest canopy.

Photogrammetry can’t penetrate vegetation compared to LiDAR technology, and this is a more suitable option for archaeologists that intend to survey an area with vegetation.

With LiDAR technology (light detection and ranging), pulses of light emitted from laser sensors hit an object and divert back to the sensors where the distance is calculated.

Furthermore, as some areas may be physically inaccessible to accommodate site surveys for one reason or another, Lidar scanning has proven beneficial in this regard.

Besides penetrating vegetation, LiDAR software can aid in mapping vast areas of land. Afterward, using computer software, collected data is used to create detailed maps (3D mapping) of an archaeological site.

In contrast, mapping an area of land on foot can be lengthy or labor-intensive. Like photogrammetry, data from Lidar software can be accessed quickly, resulting in faster data processing and interpretation.

Though it was initially created for military use, LiDAR technology led to the significant discovery of a monument in Mexico at Aguada Fenix in 2017.

Lidar technology may seem costly on the surface. Still, when you consider how quickly it generates data, it’s beneficial as it can take years for researchers to gain detailed information from ground surveys.

Before conducting a site survey, many archaeologists decide to use either photogrammetry or LiDAR technology, and their budget ultimately influences which of these two options they’ll choose. 

However, as discussed above, both of these methods are highly effective in archaeology.

Credit: Geospatial World

How Are Drones Used In Archeology?

In recent years, as aforementioned, archeologists have discovered how necessary drones are. With some of them using them for archeological surveys, others are using them for mapping among other ways. 

With a better accuracy than humans and quick turn around of results, drones are used in archeology to:

  • Aid the digital reconstruction of the great ancient sites
  • Help in the documentation of new discoveries plus their recordings
  • Monitor unlawful artifacts excavation
  • Make future dig plans easy  
  • Assess human activities and natural disasters and other activities that could potentially cause damage to the ancient sites
  • Enable archaeologists to know the true status of any site for an informed decision-making process

Which Drones Are Used In Archaeology?

There are various drones used in archaeology, but each has its unique level of strength over the other. They include;

  • Multi-rotor drones
  • Fixed-wing drone 

Multi-Rotor Drones:

With their ability to give comprehensive details in oblique and vertical frames, multi-rotor drones are best suited for excellent, top-quality cameras. 

In most cases, multi-rotors come as a quadcopter. That’s to say they are four. Nonetheless, in some special cases, you may see a hexa or an octocopter. 

Because of their ability to maneuver, they’re best for mapping at site scales. Plus, they can also be used for drone surveys. Not to mention, their ability to map vertical buildings among other features. 

Nonetheless, their resistance to wind equals that of the fixed-wing drones. 

Fixed Wing Drones:

Featuring fixed wings, these drones have a high resistance to wind. So, while they can still be used for cliffs, buildings, and monuments, they come highly recommended for surveying in landscape scales.

You can as well as use them in drone mapping. 

Because of their rigid structures, in their forward airspeed response, these drones create lifts under their wings. 

Fixed-wing drones come in three different types:

  • Swept
  • Delta 
  • Straight
Infographic comparing quadcopter and fixed wing drones.
Quadcopter vs Fixed Wing Drones

Why Drones in Archaeology?

Drones have a unique capability – they offer high-resolution photography. With this capability, it becomes incredibly easy for archeologists to discover any archaeological sites.

Consequently, regardless of their potential or residence, archaeologists easily analyze any site. 

But there’s more.

The software used in drone mapping makes it even easier for all levels of archaeologists. 

These software includes:

With this software, archaeologists program flight paths easily and swiftly. 

Through techniques such as aerial photography or fieldwalking, archaeologists also survey the land to determine which one could be of great interest to them. 

If they choose to do field walking, then they head on to the area of interest. Normally, they set parallel lines and set enough space among themselves for walking.

With drones, this exercise becomes incredibly easy as the team only needs to capture aerial photos.

Through them, they can detect areas that would interest them for whatever reasons there may be. 

Moreover, from their collection of photos, they determine how suitable that area is and what’s the next step should be.  

The use of drone technology has numerous benefits to archaeologists:

  • Eliminates fatigue among archeologists
  • Detection of all features is made possible. 
  • Drones capture a high range of data-set 

Regardless of the numerous advantages of drones to archaeologists, there are a few cons too of this technology. For example:

  • Not all areas allow the use of drones, such may include registered heritage sites as well as scheduled ancient monuments. So, beware!

Frequently Asked Questions-

When Were Drones First Used In Archaeology?

Drones were first used in archaeology in 1930. Mårten Stenberger, is reportedly the first-ever archeologist to carry out archaeological research through an aerial photograph. 

Why are Drones Used in Mapping?

Drones are used in mapping to produce high-quality, well-detailed 3D models of areas that could otherwise have no data if other methods of collecting it were applied.

Besides, drones also produce top-quality orthomosaics that feature a high resolution. 

Also, even when working in complex zones, archaeologists who use drones for mapping get accurate cadastral maps. What’s more? It’s easy to get the results. Plus, they get them really fast. 

How Do Drones Work?

As previously mentioned, drones are relatively easy to maneuver. For that reason, they can be equipped with cameras, sensors, GPS, and other add-ons. Also, they’re remotely controlled and use rotors to hover. 

Furthermore, battery swapping during flights is crucial for certain drones once the battery drains.

What Are the Major Benefits of Drone Technology?

The benefits of drone technology are many, for example, using drones in archaeology. They’re also used in the military, search and rescue missions, delivery of goods, and even in filmmaking!

However, drones used in archaeology aren’t similar to other drones, such as those used in the military. For starters, they vary in size, and some aren’t designed to be handheld.

Who Invented Drone Technology?

Abraham Karen invented drone technology. He built the first-ever drone, which is known as Albatross. Karen grew up in Israel, and as early as age 14, he had an interest in aeronautics.


Over the past decade, drone technology has enabled archaeologists to discover ancient structures, artifacts, and treasures that would have otherwise remained unknown. With new advancements in drone software, there’s significant potential for what can be accomplished in the archaeological field.

Again, drone software is a worthwhile investment in archaeology as it detects potential archaeological sites, saves time, is cost-effective, and generates accurate data.

Happy Flying!

Article Name
Role of Drone Technology in Archaeology Explained
In this blog, we discuss the role of drone technology in archaeology sector.
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Remote Flyer Private Limited
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