PrecisionHawk uses drone technology to hunt for buried treasure in the Philippines

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Buried treasure is often the stuff of legend, but that didn’t stop PrecisionHawk from recently traveling more than 7,000 miles to hunt for buried treasure in the Philippines left by the Japanese during World War II.

Working alongside the History Channel on a show called Lost Gold of World War II, a production company called Ample Entertainment approached PrecisionHawk in June 2018 because it needed a partner that could use lidar-equipped drones to penetrate the deep vegetation in order to map ancient trade paths across more than 70 acres of rainforest in the Philippines.

According to Jamie Young, director of lidar at PrecisionHawk, and one of the members of the PrecisionHawk team that participated in this adventure, this mission presented a number of challenges for the company, including trying to conduct safe UAS operations in the jungle. Adding in the dense fauna “would make for the toughest vegetation we’ve ever had to penetrate using drone-based lidar,” Young tells AUVSI via email.

The mission also took place in the middle of the Philippines’ monsoon season, so the team also had to work around torrential downpours.

Despite all of these challenges, though, drones still proved to be the most convenient option for this particular mission, with this unique set of circumstances.

“Using drones was much less of a logistical nightmare than more traditional methods — bringing a manned aircraft such as an airplane or helicopter equipped with lidar to the site would have been extremely difficult and cost prohibitive, given the circumstances,” Young says.

Lidar scientist Jill Wrenn, who was also a part of the PrecisionHawk team, adds, “the drone method was probably one of the best methods because we could fly closer to the ground with all that dense vegetation. We flew it [at] a few different angles so it would penetrate through the trees and produce an accurate ground surface.”

‘Indiana Jones-like adventures’

PrecisionHawk started this project by evaluating the area of interest and developing its flight requirements.

“Our mission would take us deep into the mountainous jungle. So, we needed a heavy-duty system that could put up with wet environment and a sophisticated flight platform that would enable us to safely execute missions over varying terrain,” Young says.

With this in mind, PrecisionHawk readied its standard lidar configuration, which is made up of a DJI M600 UAS with a Riegl Minivux lidar sensor payload, paired with an A6000 visual camera. The team also packed a Paracosm handheld lidar sensor so that it could collect data in caves and pits, as well as in areas that required higher point cloud density than what they could capture from above the canopy.

To fly the mountainous terrain of the area of interest, PrecisionHawk uploaded a high-fidelity digital elevation model into PrecisionFlight Pro, which is the company’s flight software that it uses for most commercial missions. This allowed the team to fly the UAS “such that it safely “followed” the terrain at a consistent distance above ground level,” Young says.

To process the data on-site, PrecisionHawk’s lidar scientists brought with them laptops that were equipped with major processing power.

“Ultimately, we had with us a complete data value chain: we could go from data collection through map deliver in the most remote of locations,” Young says.

Once the team had its gear, it traveled by small aircraft to a rural airport, and then drove deep into its jungle base camp. The team penetrated the thick canopy and dense fog to sense the jungle floor using its drone-based lidar. The team also used the ground-based lidar sensor to determine if there were any areas of interest in and around a cave area.

It took the PrecisionHawk team just half a day to capture the necessary data, despite the rain and other factors. PrecisionHawk notes that this accelerated the treasure hunt, as it provided the crew with a lot more insight into where it might need to look.

Regarding processing the data, it became a became a visualization tool, PrecisionHawk explains.

“Basically, “[it] was a map to help [the crew] find areas of interest they might not have seen exploring by foot,” according to Matt Tompkins, director of Flight Operations, lidar, and the third and final member of the PrecisionHawk team. PrecisionHawk notes that these “areas of interest” could hold clues in helping to solve the mystery.

PrecisionHawk also enhanced the data by converting it into MAYA format, which produces an animated, full-motion, 3-D model that is widely used in the motion picture industry.

For PrecisionHawk, a mission that had this many unique circumstances and factors provided ample learning opportunities. One of the lessons that PrecisionHawk learned as a result of this mission is that “if you can produce rich lidar models in the remote jungles of the Philippines, you can produce them anywhere,” Young says.  

Additionally, Young adds, the company points out that while UAS tend to be its platform of choice, “it’s important to plan for situations in which a handheld sensor will get you better data.”

The final lesson that PrecisionHawk took away from this mission might resonate with fans of a classic film franchise.

“There are still Indiana Jones-like adventures out there, even for us geospatial scientists,” Young says.

‘Tune in to find out!’

When asked if the mission resulted in the discovery of any buried treasure, Young gave a spoiler-free response of: “You’ll have to tune in to find out!”

With that being said, tune into tonight’s episode of Lost Gold of World War II at 10/9 central on the History Channel, which will feature visuals generated by PrecisionHawk, as well as interviews with the PrecisionHawk team that participated in the project.