Drone mapping the pyramids of Zuleta in Ecuador

The Pyramids of Zuleta are one of the hidden treasures of the Andes. Built around 1,000 years ago, by the native Caranqui people, these earthen mounds and platform pyramids dominate the landscape near Hacienda Zuleta in the mountains of northern Ecuador and 110 kilometres north of Quito.

Unlike much of our planet, high resolution aerial imagery and digital elevation models are unavailable for this part of the world. This is due to the fog that often blankets the area and the agrarian nature of the region. As a part of a team of archaeologists who visited the site in August 2013, we aimed to change that.

A challenging task

Using a small, hand-launched, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV aka drone) equipped with a downward facing camera and a sophisticated autopilot system, we documented the site as it has never been seen—from extremely low altitude and at high resolution. This was a challenging task as most of the pyramids are located in the bottom of a steep constricted canyon inhabited by Andean Condors. To make things more challenging there were high winds, clouds, and quirks of the micro-climates within the canyon to contend with. In spite of that, we were able to fly nine missions and collect hundreds of photographs in just a couple of days.

The UAV flies in a defined pattern and collects photographs. The onboard autopilot insures that each image has 60% or more overlap with adjacent images. These overlapping images allow for the data to be processed into 3D and digital terrain models (DTMs) using photogrammetric and cutting edge Structure from Motion technologies. All of the data are GIS ready. While basic processing allowed us to see the mapped data in the field, it was necessary to further develop it using a high-end processing farm in Maryland, once we were back in the United States.

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