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13 October 2011
Micro-copter reveals ancient burial mound in Russia

A miniature airborne drone has helped archaeologists capture images for creating a 3D model of an ancient burial mound in Russia, scientists say. Archaeologists are now using drones to extend their view into these hard-to-reach spots. "There are a lot possibilities with this method," said researcher Marijn Hendrickx, a geographer at the University of Ghent in Belgium.
     The machine tested in a remote area in Russia called Tuekta was a four-propeller 'quadrocopter': small and light enough to made it easy to transport, and researchers said it was very easy to fly. The engine also generated almost no vibrations, they added, so that photographs taken from the camera mounted under it were relatively sharp. Depending on the wind, temperature and its payload, the drone's maximum flight time is approximately 20 minutes.
     Tuekta is in the Altai Mountains where Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia come together. Researchers there have discovered burial mounds 2,300 to 2,800 years old and up to 250 feet (76m) wide. These burial mounds, called 'kurgans,' probably belonged to chiefs or princes among the Scythians, a nomadic people who once had a rich, powerful empire.
     Nearly 200 burial mounds were discovered in Tuekta, situated along the River Ursul. The site's heart appears to once have been a row of five monumental Scythian burial mounds with diameters between 140 and 250 feet (42 and 76m). Regretfully, "in this study area, most of the burial mounds are destroyed," Hendrickx said.
     The researchers flew the drone at a height of 130 feet (40 m) to study one mound in greater detail. They gathered enough data with the drone to create a digital elevation map of the site and a 3D model of the mound. "The 3D model we created gives us the possibility to calculate the volume of the kurgan," Hendrickx said. "With this volume and its precise dimensions, the original shape of the kurgan can be reconstructed."
     The researchers are now experimenting with a larger microdrone that can carry more weight. "This will make it possible to use, for instance, infrared cameras or even a radar system," Hendrickx said. "This can make it possible to see things we can't see with our eyes."

Edited from LiveScience (7 October 2011)

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