By Paul Hemsley
They say rust never sleeps, but the Queensland government has thrown its weight behind an ambitious project to create lasting digital three-dimensional back-ups of heritage-listed structures and objects to bring a new element of reality to the preservation of historic icons.
The lifelike images are made using a new handheld infrared scanner developed by CSIRO in a collaboration between scientists and government historians to offer a previously unavailable view of the present and the past as the landscape and fixtures change over time.
The push to record places of interest for posterity is far from a novelty as the state grapples with changes both forced and voluntary as seeks to become more resilient to extreme weather events and natural disaster that in some cases means developments may cease in vulnerable areas.
Although the recent floods of 2011 and 2013 that devastated large parts of the state inflicted relatively little damage on the 600 heritage sites listed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, the 3-D images will be used to stay one step ahead of potential damage from the environment factors.
Known as ‘Zebedee’ the CSIRO-developed gadget consists of an infrared laser scanner that is mounted on a spring that “provides a lightweight solution for ensuring a wide scanning field of view” according to the government scientists.
The choice of name is a clear reference to the psychedelic 1960s children’s television show The Magic Roundabout that featured a frenetic and excitable jack-in-the-box named Zebedee who jumped in and out of scenes.
While it is a little unclear as to what influence the controversial children’s program had on its scientists, the CSIRO said its Autonomous Systems Lab in Brisbane worked in conjunction with the University of Queensland to develop the technology that the user holds and walks through an environment to be scanned and captured by its imaging infrared laser.
As the researcher walks through a site, the sprung Zebedee laser swings back and forth to capture millions of detailed measurements to produce an image in three dimensions that can then be meticulously assessed as well as viewed online.
Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection Andrew Powell has welcomed the technology and used it to showcase the launch of Australian Heritage Week at Fort Lytton National Park.
“Fort Lytton, built in 1881 to protect the fledgling colony from perceived enemy attack, is a special place to launch the week’s activities,” Mr Powell said.
“It is one of the few surviving examples of a coastal fortress surrounded by a water-filled moat, and its heavy armaments were concealed behind grassy ramparts connected by underground passages.
“From 1881 until the 1930s, it was Brisbane's front line of defence and is regarded as the birthplace of Queensland's military history,” Mr Powell said.
The Fort has now been scanned with Zebedee and imagery is expected to be soon uploaded to the Department’s website.
Mr Powell said the potential uses of the technology within the heritage space are “endless”.
“This hi-tech laser mapping system means we can interpret and understand our past better than ever before,” Mr Powell said.
CSIRO’s Autonomous Systems Lab director Dr Jonathan Roberts said the technology is ideal for cultural heritage mapping, which is very time consuming and labour intensive.
“It can often take a whole research team a number weeks or even months to map a site with the accuracy and detail of what we can produce in a few hours,” Dr Roberts said.
University of Queensland School of Architecture dean and head, Professor John Macarthur said Zebedee created the ability to capture a detailed record of several key cultural heritage sites that are fragile and at risk of damage through natural disasters or are remote and difficult to get to.
“We're looking to use these maps in the future to create an archive of rich data about cultural heritage sites, which will allow us to analyse them without costly and time consuming hand measuring,” Professor Macarthur said.
The launch of the technology comes as the Queensland State Archives has warned that the state’s public records are at risk of being lost or damaged because of the recent floods and has provided instructions to government departments about how to prevent any further loss or damage.
Although the Queensland government has set about to preserve its physical heritage-listed structures in the digital realm, that too is at risk of vanishing without proper protections to ensure the hardware and software that can read them are up-to-date, the National Archives of Australia warned in September 2012.
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