We mainly think of the Amazon as the world's largest rainforest and home to a remarkable amount of biodiversity, but humans have been living in and shaping the lush jungle for thousands of years. While we have a good understanding of how modern Amazonian peoples live and use the rainforest, evidence of how ancient Amazon tribes impacted the forests has been scarce.
Researchers at the University of Exeter are turning to drones to uncover the secrets of how those people affected modern vegetation in the rainforest. Partnering with the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil, the team will survey the forests using remotely operated drones to figure out how hunter-gatherer communities transformed the jungle and how complex their societies were.
As part of the project called PAST (Pre-Columbian Amazon Scale Transformations), the team will fly fixed-wing drones equipped with a survey grade laser device around the Amazon basin in October. The laser will scan the ground below, collecting 3-D data that will be made into images that point to where and how the landscape has been changed.
Any sites that show evidence of being altered will be tagged for archaeological digs. Figuring out where to dig has been almost impossible because the thick layers of vegetation hide any evidence of past humans.
"We believe it has not been possible until now to attach a survey quality laser scanner on a drone that can fly for such a long time, so this is a feat of engineering which will allow us to collect data of huge significance over the vast Amazon," said Dr. Salman Khan from the University of Exeter.
"The laser scanner sends signals to the ground, and records the reflections, which allows us to produce a 3-D model of the terrain. We can then remove the covering of vegetation using sophisticated algorithms to reveal the ground below."
The special drone equipment, which was a worked on by aerospace experts, engineers and technicians specifically for this task, successfully completed a round of tests last year where it was able to fly for 2.5 hours at a time and cover roughly 60 square km. The researchers hope to not only find out how these ancient people lived, but also see how to use the forest in sustainable ways.