Autodesk Volunteers Help Preserve Historic Kosrae Using Reality Capture Software & BIM

Kosrae, an island in the South Pacific located between Guam and the Hawaiian Islands, was settled as early as 1250. But much of the island’s rich history is unknown by the people who live there, as well as the handful of scuba divers who visit annually to explore the pristine coral reefs surrounding the island. That’s why Autodesk is teaming up with KnowledgeWell (a non-profit dedicated to transforming the barriers faced by under-resourced nations into opportunities for successful business and public sector programs) to create a 3D model of the island and help tell its story to the rest of the world.

In 2007, Autodesk’s Pete Kelsey traveled to Kosrae to begin digital documentation of the island. This year, Joe Travis, a geographer and senior manager of technical sales at Autodesk, teamed up with Pete and began working with KnowledgeWell, a nonprofit that delivers business expertise to emerging parts of the world, to continue the project. Travis also worked alongside Chris Moreno an anthropologist with HDR Inc,, a global architecture and engineering firm, to interview the people on the island and better understand the remarkable culture on Kosrae and what is driving the future of the region.

“We are trying to preserve the history of the island and document what exists today,” Travis says. “Our goal is to help the island become recognized as a World Heritage Site and help prepare their infrastructure for increased tourism.” When the project is completed, Kosrae leaders will submit KnowledgeWell-created models with their application to UNESCO to achieve historic preservation status.

To create those models, Autodesk is leading a team in leveraging several forms of “reality capture” software. The first being LiDAR technology donated and delivered by McKim & Creed, which allows them to create a 3D models of features on the island. One of the key areas of Kosrae that the team is mapping is an ancient city known as the Lelu Ruins. “We basically take a large piece of survey hardware to scan different feature on the island, which shoots out millions of points with a laser beam, and allows us to capture the walls of an ancient city,” Travis says. “We scan these features and create 3D models with our software. With measurements and analysis, we can get a good idea of what the city looked like hundreds of years ago.” This same technique is being used on many features, both ancient and from the WWII era.

Pete Kelsey and KnowledgeWell team members survey the walls of the ancient Lelu Ruins.

A second form of reality captured used on the island was side-sonar scanning to capture large areas under the water. While on Kosrae, the volunteer team and equipment donors from R2Sonic performed multiple passes through one of the main bays to build a 3D model of the ocean floor. This scan proved to be interesting as ship wrecks and airplanes were revealed in the model after the scan was complete. “We’re starting to see a merger of underwater scans and terrestrial datasets,” says Travis.

Personally, Travis is primarily interested in the geographic data under the water — specifically the coral reefs that surround the island. “Kosrae is one of the few areas around the world where the reefs are still thriving,” he says.

To create a realistic digital model of the island’s coral reefs, the team uses another reality capture technique, this time with Autodesk’s 123D Catch software. Underwater, Travis and the team snorkel and scuba around the reefs and take dozens of photos of corals from various angles. Back at the computer, he uploads the photos to the Autodesk cloud. “Then we’re able to process the images so they create 3D models of the feature you’re targeting,” Travis says. “It gives us a true representation of the coral in real life. Over time, we propose that this technology will allow us to see the growth of the reefs or the lack of growth from bleaching or other reasons.”

A massive coral formation captured with an underwater camera by Joe Travis is one of numerous pictures stitched together with Autodesk’s 123D Catch software to create the 3D model.

Joe Travis used Autodesk’s 123D Catch software to transform underwater photographs of coral reefs into 3D images that can be useful for studying the reefs’ growth over time

KnowledgeWell volunteers hope that their documentation of Kosrae’s history using Autodesk tools will not only help educate local residents and launch lasting preservation efforts, but also will boost efforts to attract tourism. Today, Kosrae welcomes about 1,000 tourists each year. The island does not have any chain hotels, shops or restaurants. An Ace hardware store was “the only familiar brand name” Travis saw during a recent visit. The map data created by KnowledgeWell volunteers will allow leaders to determine how the island’s infrastructure would be impacted if they were able to host 5,000 or 10,000 tourists each year.

Travis is also working with the Kosrae Government’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) team on the island to incorporate historical maps with the most recent mapping data available. Bringing these layers of aerial photography, land parcel information and antique scanned maps together allows the citizens of Kosrae to see their heritage along with 21st century mapping information. Integrating old paper maps with the latest digital mapping data “depicts a good picture of history meeting advanced technology,” Travis says.

Part of the work that Joe Travis and the KnowledgeWell team involves merging historical maps of Kosrae with current images and GIS data.

In addition to preserving an island’s history, reality capture software technology has numerous uses for government agencies. Travis says this technology could be used to create 3D models of bridges, buildings and even natural features such as glaciers or volcanoes. “You could potentially compare models of landforms over time,” he says. “We have to think bigger in terms of mapping and 3D reality capture now that we have increased technology potential.”

Other government agencies may want to capture an electrical substation or a nuclear power plant. “With reality capture hardware and software applications, you can quickly create a three-dimensional model of almost any structure or natural feature,” Travis says.

An acquaintance of Aaron Smith, the founder of KnowledgeWell, Travis says he has wanted to get involved in the organization for years. “Aaron has asked me for over 10 years to become a volunteer, but the time just hasn’t been right,” he says. “The planets aligned this past fall for me to get involved, and it has been a rewarding experience.”

KnowledgeWell helps meet business needs of governments around the world in need, using donated software and volunteer teams of professionals.

“KnowledgeWell relies on a strong volunteer team who share a mutual motivation to transform the barriers faced by under-resourced nations into opportunities for successful business enterprise. Our volunteers have the ability to shape the future and we are proud that Joe and Autodesk were able to partner with KnowledgeWell and donate their expertise, in order to boost eco-tourism and consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for these pristine Micronesian islands,” added KnowledgeWell Senior Consultant, Aaron Smith.

This article first appeared on Acronym Online, a sister publication to Technically Speaking, focused on computer-aided design and related digital design technologies for the fields of AEC, manufacturing, and GIS.