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How Drones Helped Preserve Important Cultural Artifacts on this Remote Micronesian Island

Scientists unanimously agree that climate change is real and that its impacts are felt globally. One of the most obvious effects of climate change is sea level rise which has the potential to destroy coastal sites of cultural and historic significance in many different places around the world.

While no one can single-handedly reverse the effects of climate change and sea level rise, efforts are being made to preserve existing land, buildings, and cultural heritage sites that are at risk. Drones can play—and are playing—a big role in these efforts. Thanks to their mapping and land assessment capabilities, new methods of preservation have been taking place through the application of drone use and photogrammetry.

Kosrae

The island of Kosrae, located in the Federated States of Micronesia, offers some interesting history and a largely unspoiled terrain. Kosrae, according to archaeological evidence, was settled at least by the early first millennium A.D. Micronesian ruins exist throughout Kosrae–an island that’s particularly rich in ancient history, World War II history, and even boasts a sunken pirate ship off its shores, popular with visiting divers. Kosrae is also affected by rising sea levels, and efforts are being made to help preserve the island’s most valuable artifacts.

 

Kosrae Japanese radio tower

Ruins on the coast of Kosrae

Drones and the Photogrammetric Documentation of Kosraean Artifacts

Dace Campbell is an architect with thirty years in the design and construction industry who has over twenty-five years of applied research experience in virtual and augmented reality. He’s also a Customer Success Manager at Autodesk–a company that grants its employees a generous six-week sabbatical every four years. Some folks spend their sabbatical relaxing on remote tropical islands in far-away places, while others jet off on sightseeing adventures, and some do research or work on personal projects. Dace decided to do a little of all three when he embarked on a mission to help Kosrae’s Historic Preservation Office (KHPO) in the photogrammetric documentation of artifacts.

“As an architect, I was thinking of a philanthropic architecture project that I could work on with my family,” Dace says. “Habitat for Humanity and different church groups were doing all sorts of builds in the third world, so that’s where I started. I struggled to find something that was family-friendly and architectural. It was only when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate agreement that I realized I wanted to pursue a project addressing sustainability. That’s how I arrived at architectural and cultural historic preservation of artifacts threatened by climate change.”

 

Menke ruins

Menke Ruins on Kosrae

 

By partnering with local leaders, Dace spent one month with his family living on Kosrae as part of his Autodesk 2018 sabbatical. In order to bring new vantage points to Kosrae land owners as well as the staff at KHPO, Dace wanted to use drones to give locals a clear view of their existing artifacts. Using the 3DR Site Scan drone platform, along with various Autodesk programs and tools including ReCap™ and 3ds Max® among others, he used photogrammetry and virtual reality to execute his work.

To learn how all these tools and technologies worked together, Dace began with an experiment in his own Seattle backyard which he digitized using photogrammetry. By simulating a site that could potentially be affected by flooding due to rising sea level, faking in things like water and an ancient Kosraean wooden dwelling, he was able to create an augmented reality experience.

“To begin, and this is where Site Scan comes into play, I was just collecting images. So, I did a lot of aerial photogrammetry with an iPad and a Phantom 4 Pro, and essentially did a lot of mission planning using Site Scan, flew a lot of flights, and took a lot of pictures.”

 

Dace's yard

Dace’s AR simulation of a Kosraen structure in his Seattle yard

 

Preserving the Lelu Ruins – a UNESCO World Heritage Nominated Site

Dace explains that his ideal project sites would meet several criteria: “they needed to be close to sea level, of cultural and historic significance on a global scale, and visible enough to support aerial photography.” The sites he ultimately identified were a WWII Japanese Radio Tower, the Menke Ruins, and the Lelu Ruins. Lelu was the primary draw here, as it’s currently being considered for World Heritage status by UNESCO. The ruins themselves are located on Kosrae’s satellite island of Lelu which is a municipality of the entire state of Kosrae. Lelu once contained complex hierarchical societies on Kosrae prior to European contact, and it’s composed of Megalithic stone walls built of basalt and coral.

Once Dace and his team on Kosrae cleared large areas of vegetation covering Lelu in order to gain more visibility, they were able to access the ruins for clearer aerial drone footage using Site Scan’s automated survey flight mode.  Dace was then able to label and document his work in order to share it with KHPO and the locals through an immersive virtual reality experience.

Lelu Ruins in Kosrae

The Lelu Ruins, another Kosraen historical site surveyed by Dace

Drones Play a Vital Role in Preserving Artifacts around the World

Thanks to the efforts of Dace and the KHPO team, Kosraeans can now use VR and AR to help come up with mitigation strategies to preserve valuable artifacts on the island. “Administrators, staff anthropologists, field staff, and land owners all had great things to say about photogrammetry and VR,” Dace says. “They were quite engaged by having that firsthand experience.”

Drone functions in the photogrammetry space—especially when paired with platforms like Site Scan—have virtually limitless possibilities. It’s long been possible to perform terrestrial photogrammetry without a drone and, on the other hand, drones can be used on their own to take aerial photos without performing photogrammetry to construct 3D digital models. By combining high-resolution drone photos with photogrammetry workflows, however, Dace was able to capture Kosrae in an entirely new way.

While the average user might not be jetting off to remote islands in Micronesia to help with UNESCO World Heritage missions, projects like the one on Kosrae are becoming more and more common. It’s now easier than ever for non-professionals to use drone platforms and virtual reality to experience places as if they were there. Drones certainly are playing a vital role in the preservation of important artifacts–a positive trend that’s on the rise, with the potential to make a lasting difference across the globe.

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