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.
“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 unmanned aerial vehicle 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.
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.
There are thousands of archeological sites, many unexplored, dotting the Peruvian landscape, most of them pre-dating the Incas.
Archeologist Luis Jaime Castillo is using drones to help map the 1,300 year-old Moche civilization around San Idelfonso and San Jose del Moro, two sites on the Peruvian coast north of Lima.
“We can convert the images that the drones provide into topographical and photogrammetry data to build three-dimensional models,” Castillo said. “By using the pictures taken by drones we can see walls, patios, the fabric of the city.”
Hildo Loayza, a physicist with the Lima-based International Potato Center, is perfecting ways to apply drone technology to agriculture.
“The drones allow us to resolve problems objectively, while people do it subjectively,” he said. “In agriculture drones allow us to observe a larger cultivation area and estimate the health of the plants and the growth of the crops. The cameras aboard the drones provide us with 500 pieces of high-technology data, while with the human eye one can barely collect 10.”
High-quality images allow experts to measure the amount of sunlight the plants are getting and study plant problems like stress from heat, drought or lack of nutrients, he said.