Aerial (quadcopter) photography of Zagora in 2014

Hugh Thomas, in blue, launching the quadcopter, with Paul Donnelly observing
Hugh Thomas, in blue, launching the quadcopter, with Paul Donnelly observing. Photo and © Hugh Thomas
by Hugh Thomas
Archaeologist and aerial photographer

The Zagora Archaeological Project embraces new technology. Not only is our data being recorded into the database system HEURIST using digital tablets but in 2014 a new technology was utilised at the site: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs.

The first aerial photograph of an archaeological site was taken by Friedrich Stoltze of Persepolis in 1879. The decision to aim a camera at an archaeological site from the air had a lasting impact on archaeological recording. Aerial photography is visually attractive but it is also an important recording technique. It provides archaeologists with another view of a feature that can be useful to help understand large archaeological remains as a whole. Not only can aerial photographs assist in recording a site, it can also help illustrate the wider environment that the site is situated in. For example, photos of Zagora help illustrate its position on the coastline and its relationship with the nearby mountains.

A high, distant quadcopter shot of Zagora from the east
A high, distant quadcopter shot of Zagora from the east. Photo and © Hugh Thomas

A aerial quadcopter shot of Zagora from the north-west, showing the stepped sides of the slope caused by erosion
An aerial quadcopter shot of Zagora from the north-west, showing the stepped sides of the slope caused by erosion. Photo and © Hugh Thomas

If you read this blog in 2013, you may remember that both Adam Carr and I were using kites to take aerial photographs of the site, specifically of trenches. At the time, this was our first real foray into the world of aerial photography. The practice itself was incredibly interesting, although fraught with issues. Many days of the dig were either too windy or, surprisingly for Zagora, not windy enough. Launching the kite and attaching the camera could take up to an hour and aligning the camera over a target was often a guessing game as we couldn’t see what the camera was shooting.

That being said, the photographs we took in 2013 became an important record about the excavation of the site. Furthermore, we were lucky that many of the photographs were beautiful.

Zagora started my love of aerial photography and I was hooked. On my return home, I began to research other forms of aerial photography. I even went to the step of starting my own little business. In the time between the Zagora 2013 and 2014 seasons, I performed aerial photography not only in Australia, but I have also taken aerial photographs of several sites in Crete, the Agora in Athens and for the archaeological project of Methone in northern Greece.

Hugh Thomas with drone, photographing the Agora in Athens
Hugh Thomas with drone, photographing the Agora in Athens. Published with kind permission of Professor John Camp, Athenian Agora Excavations.
The aerial quadcopter shots help to understand the layout of the Zagora settlement
The aerial quadcopter shots help in understanding the layout of the Zagora settlement. Photo and © Hugh Thomas

In 2014 at Zagora I came back not only as a trench supervisor but also as the site’s aerial photographer. However, instead of kites, I used a drone!

The drone I used for aerial photography was the DJI Phantom 2. This small quadcopter weighs approximately 1kg and has a maximum payload of approximately 400 grams. There are larger hex and octocopters which can carry DSLR cameras, but these drones are both much heavier and difficult to transport, have greatly reduced flight times, around 5-7 minutes, and often cost at least $5000-10000. In comparison, the DJI phantom retails around $1000, is much lighter, and can fly about 15-25 minutes, with my average flight time around 17-19 minutes. Also for sites such as Zagora, which are well off the beaten track, taking a 10kg pelican case with all the gear required is much better than taking a 15-20kg case.

A quadcopter shot of the temple at Zagora
A quadcopter shot of the temple at Zagora. Photo and © Hugh Thomas

My drone was outfitted with a custom made, 3D printed jello-resistant mount (stops the vibrations from the propellers) which allowed the attachment of a Canon S110 camera, the exact same camera used in 2013 for the kite photography. The drone also carried a Boschom wireless video transmitter, which was connected to the Canon by a home made USB video out cable. This allowed a live video stream of the camera’s field of view to be watched on the ground by the pilot. Finally, the drone carried an IOSD mini, a device which allows live telemetry data to be viewed through the video stream. This device is crucial for measuring the altitude of the drone, allowing the pilot to photograph the site from approximately the same height over multiple sessions.

Using a drone requires a lot less set-up time than kite photography, around 5 minutes from opening the case to photographing, in comparison to around 30 minutes to an hour for kite photography. But arguably the greatest aspect of the use of drones for aerial photography is the stability of the platform. Once located over an area, most modern drones use GPS to hold themselves within a plane of a few metres horizontally and one metre vertically. This results in more photographs being on target and with the addition of the first person view system easily allows the pilot to make small corrections to the drone.

This aerial quadcopter shot shows Zagora from the north looking towards the south
This aerial quadcopter shot shows Zagora from the north looking towards the south. Photo and © Hugh Thomas

Unfortunately, the drone is limited to flying in relatively calm weather conditions (Under 35 km/h) but this wind speed is theoretically the most our small kite from last year could have handled. That being said, on the last day of excavations I sent the quadcopter up in winds exceeding this. The little drone’s sensors sensed the winds were too strong and it began to wildly flash its lights telling me to land it, but it managed to still fly and allow me to take the end of season’s photographs. It was not a pleasant flight, especially with thousands of dollars worth of equipment a strong wind gust away from flying off into the distance!

A quadcopter shot of a trench at the south of Zagora after it has been protected by geotextile and backfilled after the 2014 excavation season
A quadcopter shot of a trench at the south of Zagora after it has been protected by geotextile and backfilled after the 2014 excavation season. Photo and © Hugh Thomas

Arguably my most favourite flying session was midway through the project and demonstrates one feature mentioned previously, visualising the site within the wider environment. On a very still day, I put on a GoPro camera and sent the drone as high and far as I could – some 150m horizontal distance and 150m high. It provided views of the site that are rarely seen and helps show the site as a whole, something that is quite rare with a site so big. It provided an amazing view of the site. As someone said afterwards, it’s not only important archaeologically; it shows how beautiful the site is.

An aerial quadcopter shot of one of the trenches after it has been protected by geotextile and backfilled after the 2014 excavation season
An aerial quadcopter shot of one of the trenches after it has been protected by geotextile and backfilled after the 2014 excavation season. Photo and © Hugh Thomas

Using drones is one of the new and important technological leaps that archaeological projects are making. It was such an amazing experience to be able to shoot the site from the air using this new technology. Not only are the photos going to assist the project, it will give me a memento of my long time working on such a wonderful site.

More from the Dig Blog

Zagora dig blog
Jodi Cameron

What is Archaeological Flotation?

Flotation is one of the archaeobotanical sampling techniques used on site to investigate ancient plant remains. Flotation captures small finds including grains and seeds that would normally be missed during archaeological excavation.

Read More »

1 thought on “Aerial (quadcopter) photography of Zagora in 2014”

Leave a Comment