As a child, Ben Kacyra was both frightened and excited by sculptures of winged bulls in the ruins of Nineveh, near his hometown of Mosul, Iraq. In 2001, he was horrified when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.
“They were gone in an instant,” he said during a 2011 TED Talk. “And unfortunately there was no detailed documentation of these Buddhas. This clearly devastated me and I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of my old friends, the winged bulls, and the fate of the many, many heritage sites around the world.”
Kacyra and his wife Barbara founded a nonprofit organization called CyArk – the name is an amalgamation of “cyber archive” – that aims to create records of the world’s historic and cultural sites. Harnessing portable laser scanning technology Kacyra had developed to monitor nuclear power plants, the organization makes 3-D, digital scans of historic buildings, sculptures and other creations that are in danger of disappearing.
Justin Barton, CyArk’s Chief Technology Advoate and Manager of Partnership Development, told TECHtonics the data is gathered using tripod-mounted machines that bombard a structure with thousands of laser pulses each second.
“So if it’s a pyramid in Guatemala or a church in France, the machine records the surfaces based on the laser return and it gives us a very accurate 3-D rendering of the structure,” he said. Since the technology was developed for engineering purposes, it’s accurate to within a few millimeters, Barton said.
While the machines are capable of making thousands of measurements each second, the process of documenting huge and sometimes enormously detailed works of architecture and art can take time. According to Barton, the group spent about three weeks recording the interior and exterior of the Sydney Opera House.
Once the record is made, the data ends up in several places, Barton said.
“We always grant all ownership of the data we’re capturing to the site itself – to whoever happens to be the site authorities,” he said. “We have a license to archive it and share it, but we give them all the rights to it.” He added that CyArk sends a copy of the records to a company that stores the information in an underground bunker in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
In its first 10 years, CyArk created digital records of about 100 sites. But the company launched an effort late last year to ramp up the number of surveys. According to Barton, the organization hopes to record 500 sites in the next five years.
In a video on the CyArk website, Barbara Kacyra described one of the first uses of CyArk data to restore a damaged site. In 2010, fire destroyed some of the wooden structures of the Kasubi tombs in Uganda. Fortunately, CyArk volunteers had created digital records of the buildings the year before. The data was used to help reconstruct the historical site.
“That really brought to home what it is we’re doing,” Barbara Kacyra said in the video.