Lidar and UAV reveal Mayan "megalopolis" below Guatemalan jungle

February 20, 2018  - By

Lidar and UAV technology has revealed hundreds of previously unknown Mayan ruins in the Guatemalan rainforest.

The Optech Titan stripped away overlying vegetation to reveal extensive Mayan ruins in Guatemala’s rainforest. (Image:
Teledyne Optech)

In what is considered biggest aerial lidar survey in the history of archaeology, a vast and complex civilization has been discovered.

The University of Houston’s National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping (NCALM) used Teledyne Optech’s Titan sensor to identify raised highways, and complex irrigation and terracing systems.

The jungle of Central America is one of the last great frontiers of archaeology, according to National Geographic, which covered the new finds in a recent documentary, Lost Treasures of The Maya Snake Kings.

After the collapse of the Mayan civilization, its cities and monuments were quickly covered by thick rainforest, hiding it from airborne observation and making it very difficult to survey on foot. Over decades of work, the ancient civilization has gradually been revealed. But now technology is set to change everything.

Lidar digitally removes the forest canopy to reveal ancient ruins below, showing that Maya cities such as Tikal were much larger than ground-based research had suggested. (Photo: National Geographic)

Flying high above the rainforest, the Titan’s lasers penetrated the canopy to collect almost a million data points per second from the forest floor, giving archaeologists a “bare earth” view of the structures underneath.

Having covered 2,100 square kilometers, the Titan’s data revealed massive amounts of ruins hidden below the forest, showing that their urban centers were significantly larger than archaeologists had previously thought.

“Lidar is revolutionising archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionised astronomy,” Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist, told National Geographic. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”

Teledyne Optech)

“We are incredibly proud and excited that our award winning Titan multispectral lidar sensor has contributed to this spectacular discovery,” said Michel Stanier, EVP and general manager of Teledyne Optech. “The Titan’s ability to strip away overlying vegetation and map wide areas very quickly and accurately makes it an important tool for archaeologists, and we expect to see many more discoveries coming from it and our other airborne laser terrain mappers.”

The Optech Titan multi-spectral lidar sensor incorporates three independent laser wavelengths into a single sensor design, with beams at 532, 1064 and 1550 nanometers (0.5/1.0/1.5 microns) and a ground sampling rate of 300 kHz per beam.

Because Titan uses both green and infrared channels, it is capable of simultaneous water-depth mapping and high-precision 900-kHz topography.

Titan can also be used for purposes such as vegetative and forestry applications, which require multiple wavelengths for improved classification accuracy and carbon credit counting initiatives.

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.