The Big Idea
Main Image: CyArk/National Forestry Corporation of Chile/Autodesk. Inset Images: SkyBucket3D (top); CyArk. Map: NG Maps.
Backing Up History
With portable 3-D laser scanners, preservationists are making digital records of the world’s most vulnerable landmarks.

CyArk's mission is to collect detailed digital records of cultural heritage sites around the world, from the Titanic wreck to Mexico's Teotihuacan. Its key tool is a portable 3-D laser scanner that sweeps an area with a pulsing laser and returns a high-definition map of the surrounding surfaces. With data recorded as close as every half centimeter, the resulting surface map shows a "point cloud" that can include hundreds of millions of pieces of data. In addition to 3-D coordinates, the laser scanner records each point's "intensity return," a value that represents the color and brightness of the scanned object's surface. These values are shown with a false coloring. Analysts can use this information to see where cracks are developing or whether newer materials have been incorporated into a structure.

Ben Kacyra was one of the inventors of the laser scanner used in the surveys and is also CyArk's founder. He was inspired to start the nonprofit after the Taliban demolished Afghanistan's Bamian Buddhas in 2001. If detailed laser scans are available, he reasoned, at least something remains in the event of a site's loss.

Such a loss occurred earlier this year, when fire consumed the royal Kasubi tombs in Uganda. Four kings of Buganda—a kingdom within the country—were entombed in the wood-and-thatch structure. A year earlier, though, CyArk had collected scans there. Within days of the fire, a Buganda prince was talking to CyArk about rebuilding.

CyArk has identified more than 800 at-risk sites to survey. Where resources allow, it works with an international network of partners to scan the sites—38 so far. All data collected is archived and publicly available at

"Our collective memory is in the works of man," Kacyra says. "This is really not just a matter of preserving this site or that site. It's a matter of preserving our human collective memory."

—Elizabeth Preston