French military funds technology to document heritage in conflict zones

The 3D data will allow troops on the ground to asses conditions of monuments via their laptops


The French ministry of defence is funding a US-French consortium that is working to democratise the technology used to digitally document heritage sites threatened by war. A $1.1m grant, announced last month, supports a three-year project to widen access to this 3D data, so that it can be used by troops on the ground and scholars via their laptops anywhere to assess the condition of monuments and sites at risk. Peacetime applications include sites threatened by climate change and urban growth.

The BIG3D research and development project is a partnership between France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the 3D-scanning firm Iconem and Sketchfab, an online platform for sharing 3D models. The funds are being administered by France’s defence procurement agency for its military, through its Rapid programme—a scheme that supports small- and medium-sized enterprises’ industrial research and development projects of interest to the defence sector.

The French start-up Iconem scans imperilled heritage in several countries around the world, including Syria, where it works with local archaeologists to create digital databases of the country’s heritage. It has teamed up with Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums to assess sites damaged by Isil and use 3D photogrammetry to create reconstructions of them, including Palmyra’s Temple of Bel and Triumphal Arch.

Iconem's 3D model of The Temple of Bel in Palmyra, hosted on Sketchfab's website

Speaking at an event in London last month via a video link, Syria’s head of antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, praised Iconem’s work and said that he believes it would “not be difficult” to restore the arch, because it has been done before. Meanwhile, Sketchfab is hosting online 3D models of several Syrian sites, including a damaged city block in Aleppo.