Deploying Drones to Find Fossils!
We live in amazing times! Technology continues to produce incredibly cool devices that paleontologists can leverage to study deep time. First, a bit of reminiscing. Think about how amazing GPS is for relocating fossils. I first used GPS in 1997 in Zimbabwe. US military-issued, it was giant by today’s standards and had a warning label advising if it seemed the device was about to fall into enemy hands hold three buttons down to self-destruct. The coordinates we received were “scrambled”, you needed a government-issued “key” to get the real coordinates. My how times have changed, now my camera automatically encodes the GPS coordinates in each image’s metadata.
In 1998 I had the great fortune of being at the right place at the right time to watch a UV lamp placed over Archaeopteryx. I was astounded by what UV light revealed that was literally sitting in plain sight, all manner of feathery goodness! I think I have photographs of that somewhere. Film of course. Back in those days, I’d carry around 200 rolls of 36 exposure 35mm film canisters. I never knew if I had the shot or not so I also carried with me a Hi-8 camcorder. Good thing there weren’t carry-on weight limits back then! All of this semi-wistfulness about technology was set into motion this morning because of a paper I just read by Kaye and Pittman (2020). Their proof-of-concept test has my hiking books quaking!
Kaye and Pittman took an off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, aka drone), attached to it a setup of readily available electronics (laser for laser-stimulated fluorescence [LSF], camera to record the laser, strobe light firing every second to show the ground) and looked for fossils in the White River Group (Oligocene) of Wyoming. They flew their drone at night, preprogramming it to fly autonomously to specific waypoints. At 2mph, 13 feet above the ground, they were able to detect “...fossil mammal specimens down to ~20mm [¾”] in size…”. Oh my.
The image below is from their paper and shows how they:
(a) photographed an area being studied in normal light
(b) - photographed in laser-stimulated fluorescent light
(c) - photograph from the drone while flying ~13’ above the ground
(d) - used software to combine the fluorescent images, the arrows point to fossils that glow a unique color of orange in that area
Their drone flew for 30 minutes per battery and, during that time, covered nearly an acre of land, which roughly equates to the size of a United States football field excluding the end zones. They stated that, in 10 nights, flying 2 hours per night, using off-the-shelf products they could search what amounts to over 400 acres of land, and believe with commercial-grade equipment (more powerful UAV, a purpose-built camera, and more powerful computer software, hardware, and...lasers!) they could double or triple the area explored. This would mean covering nearly 2 square miles in 20 hours of flying. I’m in!
I LOVE fieldwork but if I reduce my venomous/biting/stinging/stabbing plant and animal encounters (not to mention sunburn!) for more time on actual fossils, that sounds like a win! I am envisioning this: the sun has set and the full-bellied team, working on desserts sitting around the campfire regaling one another with tales from the day, is momentarily distracted by the whir of the autonomous drone signaling another few hours of fossil searching and teeing up tomorrow's targets. The past meets the future, fantastic!