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Preserving History Through 3-D Imaging

The launching pads at Cape Canaveral, an ancient French arch and a Revolutionary War-era tunnel in South Carolina are all historic sites. But that’s not all they have in common—they’re also rapidly deteriorating.

"Our world heritage is really going away in many instances from different things: war, looting, all kinds of acid rains and climate change," says Dr. Lori Collins

But Collins is doing something to help save these sites—if not physically, at least virtually. You see, she’s the co-director of University of South Florida's Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies (AIST). 

"Part of our mission here is to really rapidly respond to this and document as much as we possibly can to preserve world heritage," Collins says.

AIST, part of the USF College of Arts and Sciences, does this by using the latest three-dimensional imaging tools to capture highly detailed versions of these sites.


Take Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 14, where John Glenn’s Friendship 7 rocket lifted off in 1962. Most of the metal gantries that people would remember from back then have been removed because of age—and what remains is covered in rust.

"It’s over 50 years old and it’s been exposed," AIST co-director, Dr. Travis Doering tells USF News. "About 200, 300 meters from us is the Atlantic Ocean, and tremendous salt air, you can smell it and breathe it now, the winds, the hurricanes and so forth, and you can see the toll it’s taken on this heavy, heavy steel."

Credit USF Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies
USF Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies
A 3D laser scanner in front of one of the "beehive" bunkers where launches at Cape Canaveral could be observed from.

So, at the request of Cape Canaveral Air Force station officials, earlier this year, AIST researchers and students spent almost two weeks mapping the site using aerial photography, GPS data and terrestrial laser scanning.

"The equipment that we’re using can capture everything that is visible, everything that you can see, to an accuracy of two millimeters or less. It literally takes almost a million points a second," Doering says. "Because of the technologies we’re using, we can now come back annually or every few years and take laser scans of the same areas and actually monitor the deformation and the deterioration that’s taking place."

And as Collins points out, as these devices have gotten smaller in size, they’ve also gotten more powerful – some are able to scan up to 330 meters at a time with incredible precision.

"The idea of scanning that much information in a seven-minute timeframe is just mind-blowing when you think that we’re collecting millions and millions of points to two millimeters of accuracy in minutes," Collins says.

As a result, researchers are crafting 3-D ‘fly-throughs’ of the Cape, which might one day allow people to visit sites that are otherwise off limits.

View more pictures and video of AIST at work here.

That concept also applies to AIST’s work at the Revolutionary War-era Star Fort in the South Carolina town of Ninety Six.

"The fort itself was where the British troops actually held up and were fighting against the Patriots that were trying to tunnel under the fort, and the idea was they were going to explode a wall," Collins says.

Credit USF Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies
USF Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies
USF AIST's Jeff Du Vernay uses a 3D laser scanner to survey the underground tunnels at the Ninety-Six National Historic Site.

But people can’t see why the attempt was unsuccessful, because the 230-year-old passages are crumbling, thereby making them off-limits. So rather than using photos and estimates as previous archeologists have, AIST first used ground-penetrating radar to map the area.

Then they sent members of the Greenwood (SC) Fire and Rescue Confined Space Response Team down into the tunnel with the laser scanners and wearable technologies like GoPro cameras and Google Glass to capture images. Those images will be replicated—and not just virtually, either.

"We can actually tangibly recreate things through new technologies such as 3-D printing and rapid prototyping, where we’re actually cutting things in different types of material, even in stone, to exactly replicate what we’ve documented," Collins says.

So the museum on site at the Star Fort might one day soon house a replica of the tunnels for tourists to climb through.

Credit USF Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies
USF Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies
AIST researchers take 3D laser scans of the Triumphal Arch of Orange in France.

AIST’s work is spreading worldwide. Members of the team recently returned from capturing images of the ornate art that adorns the Triumphal Arch of Orange in France.

"It is a World Heritage Listed site, and it’s having a lot of problems with preservation and conservation, it’s actually crumbling in some areas of it, so we don’t know how long this will last," Collins says.

And the day may soon come where anyone might be able to help capture and preserve their own pieces of history.

"It’s a matter of time, you know, five years out, we’re looking at being able to scan easily with our phones or other devices that are wearable computing kind of technologies," Collins says.

AIST is currently guest-curating “3-D Printing the Future," an exhibit showing off some of their 3-D printing at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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