Drones Monitor Crops, Study Ancient Ruins

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A man controls a drone in Lima.
ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP/Getty Images

Drones are most often associated with assassinations in remote regions of Pakistan and Yemen but in Peru, unmanned aircraft are being used to monitor crops and study ancient ruins.

Forget Reapers and Predators -- the drones used here are hand-held contraptions that look like they were assembled in a garage with gear from a hardware store. They are equipped with a microcomputer, a GPS tracker, a compass, cameras and an altimeter, and can be easily programmed by using Google Maps to fly autonomously and return to base with vital data.

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"These aircraft are small in size, are equipped with high-precision video or photo cameras and go virtually unnoticed in the sky," said Andres Flores, an electrical engineer in charge of the UAV program at Peru's Catholic University.

Flores heads a multidisciplinary team brainstorming the best ways to use drones for civilian purposes. "Up to now we have managed to use them for agricultural purposes, where they gather information on the health of the plants, and in archeology, to better understand the characteristics of each site and their extensions," Flores said.

A UAV model built by Catholic University engineers is made with light balsa wood and carbon fiber. At a glance the devices look like souped-up hand-held gliders. One limitation is that these drones must fly below the clouds. If not their instruments, especially the cameras, could fail, said Aurelio Rodriguez, who is both an aerial model-maker and archeologist. Some of the earliest human settlements in the Americas are found in Peru.

There are thousands of archeological sites, many unexplored, dotting the Peruvian landscape, most of them pre-dating the Incas, a major civilization which was defeated by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Along the dry coastline, where the main construction material was adobe brick, whole societies flourished. After centuries of abandon some of these ancient cities have deteriorated to the point that they are hard to distinguish in the sandy, hilly region.