Monitoring heritage sites with drones and remote sensors

Frank Matero likes to say that adobe structures are the “canaries in the coalmine” for climate change adaptation. Building ruins like those at Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico, which Matero’s Center for Architectural Conservation has been studying for over three years, provide the perfect laboratory to study risk, threat, vulnerability, and resistance. Any damage that the changing climate will do to exposed structures, it will do it to adobe first.

Fort Union adobe ruins with blue sky in distance

“The reason we’re at Fort Union now is that the park has experienced unprecedented catastrophic collapses over the last two years,” says Matero, professor and chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign. “I think we’re going to see more and more of this. The point of the research is to develop a framework for identifying the specific conditions and site aspects such as exposure that indicate vulnerability before catastrophic failure.”

Increasingly, the lab is turning to new technology to answer that question, specifically UAV’s (drones) and remote sensing.

At the Center, research specialist and PennDesign lecturer John Hinchman is experimenting with drones to monitor vulnerable areas in conservation sites like Fort Union, and research associate Evan Oskierko-Jeznacki is using RFID technology to create sensors that can be placed inside the adobe walls and generate data about moisture levels. Oskierko-Jeznacki says the small RFID sensors have great promise for monitoring, because they’re cheaper and less invasive than traditional methods. The group traveled to Fort Union in June and July to develop a methodology for determining the vulnerability of the site’s adobe walls.

The sensor that Oskierko-Jeznacki created is no bigger than the ones that are slipped into the merchandise at chain bookstores. It can feed information to an antenna about whether there’s moisture inside an adobe wall, which could mean it’s necessary to intervene. And the antennae can be attached to drones, which can also be used to photographically monitor vulnerable areas of heritage sites, the Center is finding.

Read more at Penn Design News.