dino drone

The drone has crashed several times, says paleontologist Caleb Brown, but it keeps on flying. (CBC)

Drones are flying over Alberta's Dinosaur Valley this summer as paleontologists from the Royal Tyrrell Museum use the aerial gadgets to film bone beds in the badlands near Drumheller northeast of Calgary

Once they have fine-tuned the technique, they hope to use the images for a new digital mapping project at the museum. 

"It's not an angle you usually get to see from the badlands — up above looking down on the quarry," said Caleb Brown, a paleontologist who has been excavating a bone bed in the valley.


Paleontologist Caleb Brown shows off some of this summer's fossil haul. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

The windy badlands made for some rocky flights, but Brown said the drone test-drive this summer worked fairly well.

"We had several crashes. But the drone is very durable. We've had a few pieces come off, but we keep fixing it and it keeps working,” he said.

Paleontologists were also using new high-precision GPS technology in the field.

The data is helping to create digital maps with three-dimensional images of bone beds. 

"We're able to map these bones beds in a way we haven't been able to before," said Jennifer Bancescu, a technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. "One of the great things is it allows you to visualize things."

Brown is used to plotting out fossil finds with graph paper and pencil, but not this summer's haul.

"We can actually — in a 3D digital world — put each of these bones back where they came from in the bone bed, look at their relative position, look at their orientations, and that really helps us to figure out how these dinosaurs were deposited, how this bone bed came to be,” he said.

It's a pioneering approach to bone-bed mapping — one that could help paleontologists see their finds in a new light. 

"It explains things about the animals' behaviour. It explains things about the environments the animals were living in," said Brown.