A project out of the University of Calgary is capturing Alberta heritage sites in a way that educates residents about their importance, but also provides a blueprint for comparing damage over time.

It's called reality capture technology and it can also provide insight into Alberta's history, a seasoned U of C archaeologist says.

"It's actually technology that has been around for a decade or so. It's used by geomatics engineers for monitoring buildings and bridges," Peter Dawson told The Homestretch this week.

"We have re-purposed that technology for preserving heritage sites in the province."

The project is on the radar of Alberta Culture and Tourism, the department tasked with preserving heritage sites.

Dawson, a professor in the department of anthropology and archaeology, says the technology creates a permanent 3D representation of a site at a specific time.

McDougall Memorial United Church west of Cochrane

Here's a 3D representation of the McDougall Memorial United Church west of Cochrane done after the fire in May. The scan revealed aspects of the building that were hidden by cladding installed in the 1950s. (pcdawson/Sketchfab)

"It's about the size of a lunchbox. It emits millions of points of laser lights," Dawson said.

"The instrument measures the amount of time it takes for those points of lights to leave the instrument, strike an object like a building and then return. It actually creates a very dense cloud of points that form the shape of the object being scanned."

Dawson said a lot of useful information comes from those point clouds that can help with preservation and it's an improvement over previous technology that could only see exteriors.

Big Rock (glacial erratic) in Okotoks

The glacial erratic or Big Rock of Okotoks was scanned in 2013 by a local geomatics engineer and again by Peter Dawson last fall. (pcdawson/Sketchfab)

"Sometimes there are aspects of buildings, parts of roofs, and in the case of the Brooks aqueduct, the inside of the flume shell itself, that you can't see from ground," he said. "We are also using drones equipped with LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and cameras to create 3D models using that type of data as well."

Captured data can then be compared with previous scans to reveal changes but sometimes a single scan has valuable information on its own.

The McDougall Memorial United Church west of Cochrane, which burned to the ground in May, is just one example.

"We scanned that building after it was destroyed by fire," Dawson said.

"That data set has been really interesting. The fire has revealed aspects of the building itself that were hidden by cladding installed in the 1950s. We have also preserved a 19th century Chinese laundry shop in Fort Macleod. It speaks to the Chinese immigration experience at the turn of the century."

The research serves two main functions, the archaeologist said.

"Our real interest in using this data right now is to create 3D models for public outreach and education through creating virtual exhibits but we are also very interested in using the 3D data to create as-built architectural plans. If a heritage building is every damaged or destroyed it can be repaired or rebuilt using the information we have collected," he said.

Next up, is the Brooks Aqueduct, a massive irrigation project built in 1912.

"In a few weeks we are going to try and capture the entire 3.2-kilometre structure using a UAV, a drone with a LiDAR camera," Dawson said.

"That is going to be extremely challenging but I am really looking forward to it."

Peter Dawson in front of Fort Conger image

Peter Dawson, a University of Calgary archaeologist, says data from more than one scan of the same site can be compared to reveal changes. (University of Calgary/CP)


With files from The Homestretch