Heliguy Interviews Archaeologist – David Connolly

Heliguy Interviews Archaeologist – David Connolly

Heliguy Insider interview David Connolly, an Archaeologist and commercial drone operator who located a World War II bunker using his drone.

Last updated: Mar 11, 2021

7 minute read

heliguy™ Interviews Archaeologist – David Connolly Heliguy Insider have been talking to David Connolly, an Archaeologist and long-time heliguy™ customer. He uses drones in a unique way, as a tool to support his work as an archaeologist, and has created a niche business by incorporating drones. David recently located a lost World War II bunker, on the East Lothian coast whilst undertaking an aerial survey with his drone. We spoke to David about how he located the bunker as well as his use of drones in his capacity as an archaeologist. Keep reading to find out what David had to say about his use of drones.


Read on to find out how drones are being used in the field of Archeology: Can you tell us a little about your work? I have been an archaeologist for over 30 years, both commercial fieldwork and research.  One facet of my work is surveying including topographic surveys and illustrating surveys for public interpretation. What capacity were you working in when you located the bunker? Recently, a section of the coast in East Lothian was hit by a series of storms and high tides. This caused a collapse of the fragile sand cliffs.  As there is a known Neolithic (circa 5500-year-old) site in the area there was a concern about the loss of archaeological material. Knowing the landowner and thanks to a friend who reported this to me, I put together a package to examine the soil profiles to let us understand the past environment. This information could then be used to search for the exact location and extent of the Neolithic site. As a baseline, I needed an accurate topographic survey of the area which was covered in scrub and heather which was around 15 hectares. For this, there was only one cost and time effective method; a UAV survey. Bunker Site   Can you tell us how you located the bunker? After carrying out the survey and locating reference points with a sub metre GPS, I created a contour map and orthographic image of the area. I used these as a comparison against a 1850s Ordnance Survey map of the area.  It clearly showed the area of erosion on what is a dynamic coastal area, however, there were some features in the landscape which were clearly not natural. Another visit to the site confirmed my suspicions. Can you tell us a few details on the about the bunker? To the west, there’s a line of anti-tank blocks. The estuary itself is covered in anti-glider poles, where wire would be strung between them to destroy any attempt at an airborne assault. We also noted that the entire stretch was littered with the remains of pillboxes. One of the pillboxes was fairly obvious as slabs of concrete littered the beach. So far, we have mapped an enclosed area of about 8 hectares, with at least two mortar positions, a number of rectangular buildings and a defensive bank on the inland facing side, with an angled entrance.  At the set end is an interesting platform, that may represent another pillbox and gun emplacement. The line along the coast is also clearly all that remains of a firing step and parapet. Standing there today you are fully protected from a seaward view and only your head looks over the narrow bank to the estuary. We now understand why the possible location of the prehistoric site seems to be in more places than it should be. The bulldozers used to create the bunker shifted hundreds of tonnes of soil and sand, as well as many of the finds in the area. Detailed Bunker Site How did you become interested in drones? I first got into drones as a direct follow on from kite and pole operated aerial imaging. Before then, aerial imaging was costly and often dangerous. I once flew over the Jordanian desert in a vintage 1970s. My own early attempts were to buy the cheap Hubsan x4 for aerial imaging but flying in anything, but flat and calm conditions led to more time being spent more walking after it, than flying.  The results were also poor, but it was still exciting! I dreamed of buying a Parrot, and then along came DJI and I was sold. It was time to invest in a proper UAV. I flew a lot out in the Emirates where I also got to use the controls Inspire 1. Mapping areas became a doddle. Then came the news that we would need certification from CAA, which I actually agreed with. This led me to Heliguy. Bunker Site Why did you make the decision to become a commercial drone pilot? It is all about acting like a professional, and being safe, something I always go on about in the archaeology world, and so why not here as well. I had seen the results of people going out, buying a machine, charging up and then off they would go into the nearest wall/tree/car. To take the step to get the PfCO was a big one. it meant investment in time, money and to remain committed to training, updates and more insurance. However, the result was a new archaeological aerial survey company, Skyscape Survey. A company who knows the legislation keeps up training for both myself and those working with me assures clients that they are in safe hands. Do you think drones are beneficial to your work and if so, how? Drones are a fabulous tool in the armoury of archaeology. They allow swift aerial imaging and a remarkable level of efficiency in data collection. In one case study, I surveyed a hillfort using traditional methods, taking over 6000 points using a total station which was five day’s work. With my drone, it took 24 minutes and then a further hour to locate the control points. I can create orthoimages of large areas and conduct building survey with access to areas I normally can’t reach. In addition to the above, with drones, unlike the old kite tech I used, the camera is where I want it, on a stable platform. Drones will revolutionise data capture in archaeology. David Connolly Flying his Drone Which drones and software do you use? I have four drones in total. This includes my original Hubsan that I still use for training which I do at least three times a week. My main working systems are a Phantom 3 Pro, used as my backup and an absolutely gorgeous Inspire 2 with the Zenmuse X5S camera. I process images with Photoshop and use Agisoft Photoscan for 3D modelling and DEM creation. I also use QGIS to produce sumptuous contour plans and easily transferable models. I use CorelDraw to tidy up illustrations and Corel Video Studio 10 for simple video editing. In reality, I don’t have to create gorgeous movies like some of the lovely films I see done by those trained by Heliguy. Do you have any advice for people looking to get into drone piloting? Very simple advice; consider what you want to do, and the effort it will require.  It costs money, in training, equipment, insurance, software, CAA permissions and marketing. Think about whether the outcome is worth the outlay?  I hear a lot of people who do it as a hobby and think ‘I could make money from this!’ Think about it first, as a business plan. For me, I looked at who I could market myself to, how it would benefit my own projects and what the cost/payback ratio was. It worked out well. Learning to fly is the next step, then getting your permission and writing your own Operations Manual. For this, don’t copy as it defeats the whole point! Commit yourself to the future. The training that I got at heliguy™ was top notch. It took me through everything I needed to know and guided me every step while ensuring I really did understand what I was doing. Do you have any interesting jobs lined up? Now the snow is off the highlands, I will be heading back up north to fly some more hillforts.  I love flying, and any opportunity will head out and train, update my systems and keep an eye on the CAA. There is nothing quite like flying over a hillfort next to Ben Nevis as the sun rises or skidding over desert dunes past crumbling mudbrick forts. I know that heliguy™ played a major part in achieving this dream. You also never know what you might find! David Connolly Aerial Image


As you can see from David’s points above, using drones can be a beneficial tool for a range of different areas. Planning a drone business and finding the best CAA approved NQE is vital when starting your business. David's work is just one of many unique ways drones are being used as a tool to assist in areas that previously weren't possible. To find out more about Heliguy’s commercial drone operator training, head to our training page here. 
To discuss any information from the above post or any DJI or Freefly product, please give one of our team a call on 0191 296 1024 or email us at info@heliguy.com.
Keep checking back to Heliguy’s Insider Blog for more announcements, insights into drones and, of course, the latest news from the drone industry.

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