Robotics and conservation experts turn to drones to map state of historic sites

Photo: ČT

Members of the Czech Technical University in Prague’s Faculty of Cybernetics, focusing on multi-robotic systems, have been cooperating with experts from the National Heritage Institute in Olomouc. They ran a first test using autonomous drones at a church in Sternberk in the Olomouc region to map the state of the building. Drones, unlike people, need little lighting and no scaffolding at all to get to otherwise hard-to-reach areas.

Martin Saska | Photo: Czech Television
A little earlier I spoke to the Czech Technical University’s Martin Saska, an expert on robotics, and asked him to tell me more about the project’s use of drones.

“The focus of our work is to design drones for flying in indoor environments. We were looking for such drones could be useful inside and churches and other historic buildings came to mind. Generally-speaking, these are excellent examples where drones can be used to gather information.”

You mentioned that you use your own designs: does that mean these aren’t items you would get on a store shelf?

Photo: ČT
“It depends, we use both. What we do is design our own operating platform but we also buy drones form shops. If you design a drone yourself, you have the advantage of factoring in elements you will need, attaching sensors where you’ll need them and so on.”

What aspect then is most important in an original design?

“For us the key element is the development of software needed for autonomous flight. That is the greatest part of our workload, to be able to design it a way that drones don’t have to be operated with teleoperation. In a church, for example, you need to be able to stabilize the drone in a concrete spot, to stay there to take pictures or to relay a video feed, and for us it is important for it not to need of a specific controller, like a joystick, for example.

Photo: ČT
“In other applications it might be useful to fly a specific trajectory autonomously, to take images or capture some sensory data. You can programme a trajectory or you can have autonomous obstacle avoidance and so on.”

The usefulness of the drones was readily apparent in a Czech TV report which showed the drones being sued to study hard-to-reach parts of the church, to study walls, statues, and other details. No scaffolding required. No extra man hours, no danger of injury. And so on.

“Certainly that is the usefulness and beauty of it: unlike other robots they are not stuck on the ground, they can fly to the spot in 3D. The church is a great example where they can operate very well. In the Czech TV report, not all the drone which were used were flying autonomously but two were: the one with the video camera which filmed the area and the other drone which carried a lamp for lighting.”

Photo: ČT
So a miniaturized film crew, one drone lighting technician, one camera… Is there a limit in the number of drones you can send up in one formation?

“There could be a communications limit but if there is no communication and if there is enough space, our software does not have limitations. So one of our main aims is to design drones which can operate in swarms. Like flocks of birds or schools of fish.” Where was the church shown in the report and what was the nature of the information recovered?

Photo: ČT
“It was a church in Sternberk near Olomouc. Basically, historic monument conservationists wanted to check difficult to see areas of the site and to gage how much the site needed to see renovation.” Does that mean that there will be future cooperation between your team and historic site conservationists? A grant from the Culture Ministry was mentioned…

“Yes. This was kind of a first test but certainly we plan on applying for funding. We hope to make a film documentary about a number of sites which are very hard to reach and have not been filmed for decades. That is what we are hoping to do next.”