1. Headline
  1. Headline
The University of Houston and the National Science Foundation's National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping
A view of the Honduras rain forest. Laser mapping scientists flew over a remote part of the forest and discovered what appear to be ruins. The next step is to visit the ruins in person to determine their age.
By
updated 6/7/2012 1:55:17 PM ET 2012-06-07T17:55:17

Underneath the thick, virgin rainforest cover in the Mosquitia region of Honduras, archaeologists have discovered ruins they think may be the lost city of Ciudad Blanca. Legends say the "White City" is full of gold, which is why conquistador Hernando Cortes was among the first Ciudad Blanca seekers in the 1500s.

But the method the modern researchers used was a little different from previous explorers' techniques. The modern-day researchers flew over the area in a small plane and shot billions of laser pulses at the ground, creating a 3-D digital map of the topology underneath the trees.

This is one of the first times this technique, called light detection and ranging (LiDAR), has been used to map ancient ruins. Beyond archaeology, LiDAR researchers at the National Science Foundation are looking to develop the technology for mapping disasters using drones, for military spying and for tracking erosion under rivers and shallow parts of the ocean. 

LiDAR for archaeology
Before LiDAR improved enough for their work, archaeologists discovered ruins the old-fashioned way — by hacking through forests using machetes. LiDAR is faster and cheaper.

It's been gaining ground since 2009, when a U.S. archaeology team working on Maya ruins first used the technology to peer beneath 80 square miles (207 square kilometers) of forest canopy in Belize. After four days of laser scanning, team members discovered buildings and agricultural fields they hadn't found in 25 years of study. The team was supported by the then-new National Science Foundation organization for LiDAR science, the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping. [10 Modern Tools for Indiana Jones]

Airborne LiDAR works by sending more than 100,000 short laser pulses to the ground every second while a plane flies over the area of interest. The laser light hits the ground, then returns to the aircraft. The time it takes for the light to make the back-and-forth trip tells researchers the altitude of points on the ground. 

The technology is able to detect height differences of less than 4 inches (10 centimeters) and maps to GPS coordinates within 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters). "It's within a step, in many cases," said Bill Carter, University of Houston engineer who develops LiDAR systems for the National Science Foundation.

The Belize archaeology work and the new Honduras findings both used the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping's LiDAR system. There was one major difference between the two projects, however. At the Belize site, researchers thought it was likely there would be new ruins there. They used the LiDAR to scan regions surrounding structures they had already uncovered. On the other hand, in the new study in Honduras, researchers were running on just a hunch — and plenty of private funding. 

LiDAR in Honduras
Cinematographer Steven Elkins has been fascinated with the Ciudad Blanca stories for more than a decade. He previously analyzed satellite imagery of the Mosquitia forest, looking for signs of the city. As LiDAR improved, he gathered private investors to pay for the National Science Foundation's laser mapping center to analyze three areas he thought were especially promising. Elkins had originally approached the Honduran government with his idea, but government officials said they knew the forest well and there wasn't anything there, Carter said.

The University of Houston and the National Science Foundation's National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping
Data on topology from the LiDAR flyover in Honduras.
 

Over several days, National Science Foundation engineers flew over about 60 square miles (160 square kilometers) of forest for Elkins in their dual-engine Cessna planes. At the end of every day, they sent the data to Carter, who was working out of West Virginia. Carter found the first signs of what appeared to be human-made structures within five minutes of analyzing the data, he said. [Archaeology's Tech Revolution Since Indiana Jones]

"I'm the only person right now on the planet that knows that there's these ruins," Carter recalled thinking when he saw what he said were straight lines and right angles that don't normally appear in nature. "My wife walked in and looked over my shoulder and she was the second person to know." 

Carter sent his analysis back to the archaeologists in Honduras, who agreed the structures were man-made. Now, Elkins, along with a team of Honduran scientists, will visit the structures in person and determine what they are and how old they are. The LiDAR coordinates will help them pinpoint exactly where to look in the thick jungle. 

LiDAR for biology, disasters and the military
Carter said he found his involvement in discovering the Honduras ruins exciting, but the National Science Foundation's LiDAR center is looking to do much more with the technology. 

So far, center researchers have used LiDAR to map to the ground to assess flooding risk and to find new fault lines in California. They've pinged Floridian citrus groves with lasers to check on the trees' health. Healthy tree leaves reflect a different quality of light back to LiDAR sensors than do sick trees, Carter explained.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning
      NOAA

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

The science agency also recently developed a laser that uses green light, which is able to map features underneath shallow water. Biologists want to use this technology to investigate fish spawning grounds, Carter said, while land managers may use a water-LiDAR to keep an eye on erosion. 

In the future, the center hopes to develop smaller, lighter, less expensive LiDAR that is able to ride in unmanned robotic aircraft. The drones could spy for the military, go on a tough Arctic mapping expedition or assess conditions after disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes. 

"As we look in the future, we see the ability to use these types of systems to map the entire Earth," Carter told InnovationNewsDaily. "Certainly all the land areas and shallow coasts."

You can follow InnovationNewsDaily staff writer Francie Diep on Twitter @franciediep. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

© 2012 InnovationNewsDaily.com. All rights reserved. More from InnovationNewsDaily.com.

Explainer: Tales of seven cities, lost and found

  • Science / AAAS

    The Lost City of Z, a fabled metropolis of unimagined riches deep in the Amazon rain forest, has eluded explorers for centuries. But recently documented traces of a well-planned constellation of walled settlements arranged around central plazas and linked together with arrow-straight roads in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon may be the civilization that gave birth to the legend, scientists say. This image shows the charred remains of a house in the region that was uncovered as part of an archaeological project led by the University of Florida's Michael Heckenberger.

    Click the "Next" label for six more tales of cities lost or found.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Atlantis legend inspires hotel chain

    Joel Ryan  /  AP

    According to the Greek philosopher Plato, Atlantis was a powerful society that disappeared under the sea in a torrent of earthquakes after it failed to take the city of Athens. Some scholars consider Plato's account as purely fictional; others have scoured the world for evidence of its existence. One disputed theory holds that Atlantis was on a portion of the Mediterranean island Cyprus that was submerged during an earthquake thousands of years ago. The mythical allure of the lost city has spawned a luxury hotel chain. In this image, fireworks explode over the opening of the Atlantis resort in Dubai.

  • What happened to the lost colony of the Americas?

    Gerry Broome  /  AP

    Sometime in the late 1580s, 117 English colonists disappeared while attempting to become the first to settle the New World. Their settlement on what would become Roanoke Island, N.C., was found abandoned in 1590. To this day, scientists, scholars and the plain curious can't agree on what happened. Some people believe the colonists assimilated with neighboring Native Americans; others think they were either killed by their neighbors or sunk at sea while trying to flee. In the image shown here, Frank Ray, a member of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research looks for clues that could help solve the mystery.

  • Lost city of Ubar found

    NASA

    From about 2,800 BC to AD 300, the city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert served as an outpost for the lucrative trade in frankincense, a sweet-smelling gum resin. Then, according to myth, the city sank in the sand, lost forever. And so it was until archaeologists armed with everything from ancient texts to remote-sensing technology on the space shuttle went looking for the lost city. The diffuse reddish streaks in this radar image from the space shuttle show ancient paths leading to and around the ancient site, which had literally sunk into an underground water hole. Ubar's discovery is an example of scientific sleuthing verifying ancient lore.

  • Lost city of the Incas remains a mystery

    Giulio Magli

    In 1911, U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham scrambled up a steep mountain side in southern Peru and encountered an ancient city of sorts beneath the undergrowth. The site, Machu Picchu, is popularly known as the Lost City of the Incas. What exactly the city was, however, remains a mystery. Scholars have variously theorized it was the birthplace of the Incas, a private estate, and a spiritual destination. Prior to Bingham's encounter, the city was lost to the jungle for about 500 years.

  • Itil, lost capital of Khazars, found?

    Dmitry Vasilyev  /  AP

    The excavated buildings shown here south of Moscow, Russia, may be remains of Itil, the capital city of the Khazars, a Russian scientist has reported. The Khazars ruled the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea between the seventh and 10th centuries. Once conquered by the Russians, Itil disappeared without a trace. Some scholars believe it was swamped by the nearby rising Caspian Sea in the 14th century. Scientist Dmitry Vasiley at Astrakhan State University believes these flamed brick buildings are part of what was once Itil.

  • Layers of Troy found in Turkey

    Warner Bros. via Reuters

    Homer's epic poem the "Illiad" famously describes a war in the city of Troy, replete with tales about the heroic Greek warrior Achilles and a wooden horse. Questions about whether the city really existed appeared resolved in the 1800s when journalists, archaeologists and others zeroed in on a site and excavated the ancient city. The so-called archaeological Troy consists of nine cities built on top of one another and denoted with Roman numerals. Scholars believe Troy VI and Troy VII correspond with the city described in the Iliad. This image from the movie "Troy," which was based on the Iliad, shows the famous Trojan horse.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

    Party on, TODAY! See ‘Saturday Night Live’ costumes for Halloween 2014

    10/31/2014 12:15:55 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T12:15:55
  1. Courtesy of Arti Ghole

    These babies in Halloween costumes will brighten your day

    10/31/2014 4:57:53 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T16:57:53
  1. @instagranph via Instagram

    Super, again: Neil Patrick Harris, Gotham family do Halloween right

    10/31/2014 10:18:06 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T22:18:06
  1. Jacquelyn Martin / AP

    Treat yourself: Steal the White House's Halloween cookie recipe

    10/31/2014 9:42:26 PM +00:00 2014-10-31T21:42:26