HxGN RadioPodcast

Digital Realities: Scanning damaged heritage sites in Ukraine

In this episode of Digital Realities on HxGN Radio, Engineer and 3D laser scanning expert, Emmanuel Durand, shares his experience scanning cultural heritage buildings in a country at war.

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AT: Welcome to HxGN Radio. My name is Amanda [Troth], and in this episode of Digital Realities, our host, Megan, sits down with French engineer and volunteer Emmanuel Durand, who shares his story of travelling to Ukraine to scan cultural heritage sites in the middle of a war zone.

ED: For me, laser scanning is not the final product of what I’m doing. It’s a tool but a very important tool on my side. I’m using laser scanning really with an engineering perspective, and it allows me to do very powerful analysis afterwards. What the scan is really bringing is a different angle, a different perspective. People immediately get a sense of the damage because they can see the crater of the missile, and this is not something you can get through a picture. It’s all about the graphic data.

MH: This past spring, French engineer and 3D data specialist Emmanuel Durand stood among the rubble of a children’s library housed inside a historic building in Chernihiv, Ukraine. His mission was to scan and capture the damaged building after a bombing in March left it in ruins. He later processed his scans to depict the scene with transparent layers, really providing a unique perspective on the damage. In the image, you can see surviving columns and arches beside demolished walls bordered by a metres deep crater. He had created a digital reality with striking dimension that captures and communicates an important moment in Ukraine’s history.

Welcome to the Leica Geosystems Digital Realities podcast. I’m Megan Hansen, your host today. Here at Digital Realities, we strive to bring you storeys about reality capture technology and the people using them to build digital realities. For this episode, we were very lucky to sit down with Emmanuel just ten days after he returned from a seventeen-day stay in Ukraine. His efforts demonstrating heritage site demonstrates not only what digital reality technology can do, but the impact it can have on the hands of the people working to preserve endangered heritage and cultural sites at critical moments. So, without further delay, let’s get to the interview and let Emmanuel tell you his own story.

Hi Emmanuel. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to talk with you today. Both, of course, because the work you’re doing is so interesting and important and also because, you know, in reading your interviews for different news articles, you’re able to describe the technologies you use and the role they play in such an accessible way. But before we get to the specifics of your work in Ukraine, can we start by learning a bit more about your background and how this led to the volunteer work you’ve done?

ED: I’m a civil engineer from the Paris School of Civil Engineering. It’s one of the main Universities, what we call ‘grande école’ in France. It’s a very old school. Most of the civil engineers in France come from there. I also graduated from ETH Zürich in Sustainable Construction. That’s more recent. I did a Master’s there. My background includes working many years abroad. Mostly with international companies like Holcim. I was with my family abroad, spending two years in one country and three years in another. In 2018, I started my own company called Amann Engineering in Geneva, Switzerland. Now I’m my own boss, and that is very important for what I will explain after. So, my normal professional mission is to serve in-the-field clients, mostly structural matters. In that sense, this is where I started using the scanner with Leica. I acquired my BLK360 four years ago. The difference you may find with most of your customers is that, for me, laser scanning is not the final product of what I’m doing. It’s a tool but a very important tool on my side. I’m using laser scanning really with an engineering perspective, and it allows me to do very powerful analysis afterwards. So that’s my normal work. Having said that, the fact that I’m a consultant and working on my own gives me the liberty, and because I have the constraint, you know, when you’re a consultant, you have moments of a high level of work and then a lower level of work. So, I have the opportunity to decide on my schedule. When I have both the combination of some particular event, like in Beirut, Lebanon in August 2020, where a specific event happened like this explosion of the port, and at the same time I have some availability to go, then I can decide to go. And this is exactly what happened also in this year in April and May, but we’ll talk more about this later. I was also in that combination of a lower level of work and all these events in Ukraine. So, for me, it’s like, a call. Like a sign, I need to go. It’s an alignment of planets. And so, I went to Ukraine.

MH: That’s wonderful. To be able to extend your skills to places where it’s needed and where the timing is important, like after the port explosion in Beirut, but also, with continuous support beyond the initial event.

ED: Yes, in Beirut, I am still working a lot with them. It’s engineering work. I scanned the silos right after the explosion, and the scans have so many powerful uses today. With the scans I took right after the explosion, I’ve provided the Lebanese government with a lot of valuable information. For example, I was able to identify that the silos are leaning because of the explosion. I came back with many scans and am comparing in the software. I even did at some point with 3DReshaper. I was able to determine the change in inclination. More than that, there is also a very powerful, historic, and memorable site in the sense that the scene wasn’t quiet at that time. Now they have mostly disappeared because the site has been cleaned. Life must go on. And the scan I have from that particular time is a unique feature seen only in 3D that only remains in our scans. So, it will have a big use later for anyone wanting to study this explosion, from crime and forensics to historical museum graphics and all things like that. And of course, architects and modelling or maybe a film. And for Ukraine, to go more into detail. It’s my first mission, so I just came back ten days ago. I spent seventeen days there working with architects, engineers, and The Ministry of Culture. I had an official invitation from Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and the list of my equipment, the BLK and tripod and all. Ukraine is not a country at the moment that you can access with special equipment. You know the BLK is not a big device, but you need to be able to show what this is about. So, I had all the papers and was working on the heritage there.

MH: It sounds like there were many additional logistical aspects to even start or gain access to do the work in Ukraine. Along with, I’m sure many other challenges or unique aspects to scanning in this environment. Can you tell us what it was like to capture data on these sites? You know, perhaps describe a day in the life of scanning damaged historical sites in a country at war?

ED: It’s a very good question, Megan. It’s very different depending on where you are. Before scanning, what you need to understand is that, unfortunately, we spend a big chunk of the time, like maybe 75%, on pure logistics. Travelling. Clearing customs takes five hours. Lots of cheques. Then take the train, the night train. Sleep in the car. Go to the hotel. Pack. Unpack. All the time, you’re moving. That takes a lot of time. But, to come back to your question of what it’s like, it’s very different. I will give a few examples.

When I started, I tried first to start easy. I had to, so I came first from Poland to Lviv. And once in Lviv, I had short sessions with my friends from Skeiron. They are a commercial company doing 3D laser scanning and they have the C10 scanner and now they just got the P20. They work only with Leica equipment. But they don’t have a BLK, so my first work was to debrief with them in Lviv, and we went together to scan a church, a very big one, St. George. I helped them with my BLK for half a day. It was like a training session. That was, I would say, in a quiet and very beautiful and safe environment.

Still, in Lviv, I started hearing my first siren. The one you’ve seen on TV. It sounds a few times a day. Of course, it is scary in the beginning, but now I would say people don’t really care because it’s all the time. Three months ago, they would go underground. Now they just keep moving. So that was the ambience in Lviv. It’s almost life as usual. And then I took the night train because that’s the safest way to move in Ukraine. It’s like a cabine couchette, a sleeping train. You leave from Lviv at ten at night, and you arrive in Kyiv at six in the morning. Then I was immediately picked up by a team consisting of an architect and a museum director. We immediately went to the north of Kyiv, to Chernihiv, about 40km from the Russian border. And here, it turns into a different storey.

We had special authorisation to clear the checkpoints. Imagine how it is to drive from Kyiv, a very bustling city – it looks like Paris, but with a little less people at the moment. And then you go on a certain highway, and after a moment, there is just nobody. You’re on this big highway and you’re just alone, driving 150km/hour. You have exploded tanks on the side of the road and some checkpoints. Every few kilometres, you need to clear a checkpoint and are checked by soldiers and show them the papers. And then we arrive in the city of Chernihiv, which has suffered extensive damage and we started working. This Chernihiv region is where I had my first war scans.

I had two of them in Chernihiv. The first is the library. It’s a library for children. You may have seen my post about this on social media. It’s a very old building. It used to be a museum for a very famous writer and was turned into a library for children. This library was bombed. I scanned it inside and outside, which was very complicated. And for this, I have to say, the BLK is really a tool of choice. You are walking in the rubble, and actually inside was the most difficult because the ceiling was almost falling. All the shelves with the books are gone. Actually, they didn’t want us to go inside, but I said, “OK, I’m a civil engineer. I went to Beirut.” I showed them where I went to and said, “I don’t want to show off but if there’s anybody that can know if this is OK, I think I will manage.” So, they said, “OK, you go”.

I scanned the whole inside and the outside and I have one billion points for that library. Then we went with the team to many other sites. For instance, the museum director was on a mission to pick up some particular pieces on sites to put in the museum later. I can not specify what kind of pieces, but they were collecting this and this, which was another kind of mission. On my side, I was always coordinating with them because we had different ways of working. For me to scan, I need minimum three hours because I take everything in high resolution. Every scan is seven minutes then I need to move. So basically, I need ten minutes for a station. I’m not moving all around, I’m spending more time in one area, and they were going around to different villages and talking to people. I scanned this library and then we spent the first night in Chernihiv.

To give you a bit of the feel of the situation, you are in a town that sounds like a ghost town. You have to close your curtains so that there is no light outside. The curfew is at ten. At this time, you can’t go outside, and the hotel shuts down all the lights and everything. If there is a threat, you will hear the sirens. And then it’s like this through the night. You stay in the black until six in the morning when you are allowed to go out.

On the second day, we went to another village south of Chernihiv to scan the church, which you may have also seen on social media. That was a long trip. It was just a few kilometres between Chernihiv and the church, but Ukraine had bombed the main bridge to stop the advance of Russia. So, we had a long way around, a four-hour drive, just to make a big loop around and access the church.

Finally, we arrived at the church site, which was really special because it’s a very small village with almost nobody now, and this church is surrounded by destroyed Russian military vehicles, mainly trucks. Because they were using the church as a base for them and to store ammunition, and then they were destroyed. I mean, that was really the war. The church was destroyed, and the vehicles were too. I was able to scan the whole site. Both the inside and the outside. Unfortunately, the weather was getting horrible. My scan is very good, but it could have been better outside. The rain and the burns of the vehicles were absorbing the laser. But still, the data is very good. We are currently computing this, and I think between tomorrow and Monday, we will post it as a 3D link on the internet so people can see it and turn it around. So that was Chernihiv.

Then we went back to Kyiv, and we went to Kharkiv, which was again a different storey. It’s like it was going more and more complicated. When they told me, “There is some work in Kharkiv.” I said, “Kharkiv?! This sounds like the front line to me.” But they said, “Oh, it’s OK there!” So, I called a friend who is a war photographer working for The New York Times in Kharkiv, and I asked him how it was there, and he said it was OK. So, I went to Kharkiv again on the night train. From Kyiv at 10 pm and arrived in the morning. That train is really an experience. I don’t know if you’ve taken this night train couchette. I was doing it when I was a kid. It’s super comfortable in Ukraine, very clean. You have the babushka, like the mama for every waggon. She was a very big lady, and she comes and brings you coffee and it’s very organised. She places your pillow where it needs to be and your bed linen where it needs to be. It’s kind of a funny experience from one side. But sad from the other side because the train is almost empty. You can’t see outside. Again, you need to put the curtains down at night. Also, the windows have these big transparent stickers in case there is some bombing, so the glass will not shatter. All in all, the train is an experience in itself.

And then you arrive in Kharkiv in the morning in a big station with only the military outside. And now you really feel like you’re at the front. This is where I heard my first shelling. The people there were like, “Oh, it’s just shelling.” Like it’s only rain. In Kharkiv, this is where I worked the most, mainly on three sites. I tried to make it short. In Kharkiv, I was scanning a hospital and all the roofs had burned and there was some fire damage inside. Here, the most graphic part is in the roof. Then I scanned a fire station. This one I’m going to post again. It’s a historical building from 1887. It’s a beautiful building, made of bricks. It was also bombed, of course. I was able to scan inside and outside. I did a first, at least for me. With a fireman, I used the BLK from the fireman’s hydraulic basket. I went 30 metres high. I did a kind of flying LiDAR with the BLK. This allowed me to get very good data of the roof. I had no idea how it would turn out because the basket is always moving. The data was actually very good, I was so happy. In the end, I did the inside, the outside, and also flying.

Finally, in Kharkiv, I worked on the Kharkiv National University of Economics building in the very centre of Kharkiv. It was also bombed, of course. It was the first multi-storey concrete building in Ukraine. It’s not super old, it is a concrete building. But it’s one of the first concrete buildings of this magnitude and from a very famous architect, and it’s very interesting technically. I was able to scan most of the building – not all of the building because it is far too big. I would need one full week for this one. But I scanned the entire interior courtyard, which is extremely graphic with a damaged car and all the bricks from the roof. Again, this is really where the BLK helped me because I used a kind of extension rod that allows me to go about three metres high. I could scan places without going there, just by sending my BLK through a hole so my scanner would go outside, and then I would control the scanner with the app to conduct a scan in a very difficult, complex area.

Then I went back to Kyiv, where I wanted to scan the Irpin bridge you have seen. It’s a very symbolic place. It was destroyed to stop the advance of Russia in the northwest of Kyiv. You may have seen this image with the Ukraine flag and the vehicle upside down. I wanted to scan this one because I’m a civil engineer. They told me, “This is not a historical bridge.” And I said, “Yes, but you will see.” I have seen in Beirut how things can turn iconic. It is the case because when I was scanning, I saw that they are already building a new bridge beside the destroyed one. They have already decided to keep this Irpin bridge as a symbol. So, I also have this one in the box. I’m still computing today, still processing data. There are other people, other members of the team, like Skeiron in Lviv and others in France and Spain. We are all converting this into mesh, into 3D and posting. Aside from all that I’ve said before, the use of the scans for forensics, for architects, and later for museum graphics, there is a very big use today which is simple: communication. In this sense, Ukraine can and already is using our data to communicate and to say, “Look at the damage and what they did to us”. And in that sense, I was lucky to meet in Kharkiv – it was really a coincidence at that point – a journalist from Agence France-Presse, AFP. He was in Kharkiv, in the same hotel. He came with me to the fire brigade with his photographer. And that’s the good thing about AFP, they make one article on you and then after, it’s just everywhere. Like it’s really everywhere. It’s in South Africa, in China. You have a video in Germany. It’s just incredible. And it keeps going at the moment. I’ve had interviews with so many people. This morning I had ABC news of the US saying, “We would like to go with you on-site and scan.” And I have to say, I’m sorry, but I’m back now. But they are all coming and going, and I will return so we can keep working on that. There is a significant interest because every day Ukraine is about the war, the shelling, the victims. The media, they like our storey – me and the other volunteers – because it gives a different colour. In a way, it’s giving some hope in the sense that it’s the first step for reconstruction. It’s also very graphic. So, there is a big interest. The thing is, I had this experience in Beirut. You are on the field and to be honest, when you are on the field, I mean I’m happy to talk to journalists, but at the same time, I’m also trying to be discreet in what I’m doing. Because there are good people and bad people, so I need to be careful who I am talking to and also, I have a lot of work. When you are there, you are busy with your task on the ground and afterwards, after the AFP release the paper, a lot of [journalists]want to talk to me. But either I’m already in the south, in a different town, or in the case with ABC this morning, I’m already back home. I’m a real volunteer so unfortunately, I’m not able to stay there all the time.

MH: You spoke about the significant interest from different news agencies and media outlets. And through photographs and film footage, people have seen damage in Ukraine. But the work you do and the images you’re able to produce with the scans can show the damage with a stronger sense of dimension, depth, and the extent of the destruction. Can you talk about how laser scanning as a technology makes demonstrating this possible? Particularly in the context of historical buildings damaged in war?

ED: To answer your question, I hope it will answer it. The great particularity of the laser scan is that it brings a different light, a different angle to a particular scene. Something that’s not existed before in the way that people communicate. I have a lot of friends that are war photographers, and people I met in Beirut. Including one that I met two months ago, Marcus Yam. He has the Pulitzer Prise for [Breaking News] Photography. So, very famous people. They take their pictures, which are very graphic and dramatic, but this remains a 2D picture. What the scan is bringing is a different angle—a different perspective. For example, for the library, in just a snapshot, applying transparency to the point cloud, people get immediately a sense of the damage because they can see the crater of the missile. This is not something you can get through a picture. The picture is a narrow angle. You see a whole, but you don’t really realise the depth. It’s really a different perspective. And then of course everything that we know we get from the scan. It means the possibility later to give to the readers. To manipulate the 3D and to get a better sense of the scene. It’s all about the graphic data. Last Friday I was at ETH in Zürich at the implementation of my Alma Mater and the closure of some promotions in the Civil Engineering department. So, I was presenting my work, and people were really impressed, including a very famous architect. He was very impressed by the point cloud powerful render. He said, “We are using point cloud. But we don’t really like point cloud. We prefer mesh. To the point that sometimes we decide not to scan. Because the guys they scan and, in the end, they mesh and it’s a long process. We realise it’s best just to draw. I realise from your work that the scan and actually the point cloud is really powerful.” So, it was a discovery for them, and they are really big buys in architecture. They have the Pritzker. It’s the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in Architecture. So, it’s a discovery.

I really enjoy the BLK. I think I’m really using it to the maximum in the sense that it’s the only device of that weight and that scale. So, you can really take it everywhere. There’s so many advantages. For example, when you go to complex areas, like Ukraine, it fits in your luggage. And this is so important. When you travel with a scanner, you don’t like to have a €20,000 or €50,000 piece in the hold of the plane. When you’re waiting for your luggage on the conveyor, you’re always saying, “Oh my god, I hope it’s coming.” So, you like to have it in your luggage. Also, it’s not attracting a lot of attention. When you have a big scanner, you need to do paperwork at Customs. People come and open the big red box and say, “Oh, what is this?” You look like a Spy. The BLK is so discreet. Most of the time, when I’m questioned, I just say, “It’s a panoramic camera.” And that’s it.

MH: It’s not wrong.

ED: It’s not wrong, yeah. It’s a half lie.

MH: Yeah.

ED: You need to avoid the word “laser” in customs. It immediately attracts attention. If they ask more, I would say, “It’s a 3D imager.” It’s not a lie. So, all in all, between its portability and the range, it’s sufficient.

MH: To continue the discussion beyond the initial communication potential of the imaging, you briefly mentioned earlier that people are and continue to use this data in different ways, from reconstruction plans to stabilising structures and so on. Can you go into a bit more detail about how this data might be used in the short and the long term?

ED: As you know, what I’ve been doing in Ukraine, is really the first step. I’m producing laser point clouds in intensity and with particular colour, so this is like just making flour. And from that point, they will be able to bake it into a pastry, bread, or whatever. It’s the base material. I’m trying to stay very humble at this point and highlight the next step, as you mentioned short or long-term. Actually, this is always the question from the journalists: “This is nice, but is this for what?” In the short term, to be honest, the very first short term is communication for all these guys and for the government. This is extremely important. Yesterday I read an article about Ukraine and the people living in Europe getting kind of tired of Ukraine. Three months ago, everybody supported Ukraine. But now [the support is]going down and down and people are looking more at the price of gasoline and think, “We hope it will end soon.” People are getting tired, and, in the end, some are starting to think they should give up on this war. There is a sense of getting tired. So, one short use right now is, again, on the communication point of view. It helps, but it’s just a drop in the water. But it really is helping to sustain the attention of Ukraine and I can see because again I had another journalist from Australia preparing something and wanted more details. So, it keeps the attention. That’s in the short term. It’s happening now. It’s helping local people to get more than attention, to get grants and money from international institutions, like the guys of Skeiron. First off, thanks for the visibility. Just talking to you, Leica, we were able to secure some licences for these guys. We were able to get them PUBLISHER and Cyclone REGISTER 360, which I immediately forwarded to Ukraine. And this is something they didn’t have access to before. But more than that, Skeiron now just secured one grant from an institution for preservation of heritage, based here in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s a National NGO. They are just now awarding a grant to Skeiron to keep moving. Other associations like HERI, the Heritage Emergency Response Initiative in Ukraine, are also working very hard to get some funding for the preservation of artifacts inside the museum or the buildings themselves. They are already using our work and all the visibility the press has given us, leverages this. Obviously, communication is very important. If you write to UNESCO and say, “we do this and that, can you help us?” And you write to UNESCO and say, “we do this and that and this is our article in The New York Times.” It’s very powerful. That’s the short term.

In the longer term, there will be a use, I can’t say by whom, but there will be a use for forensics and war crime investigations. On my side, I’m giving the files to Ukraine, I’m not keeping them for me. I did a volunteer job, and I’m putting the point cloud on the server and giving access to my contacts, so they’ll decide how they want to dispatch. I’m sure it will go, in part, to war crime investigations. Another part is it’s already going to architects. They will use that to establish and to draw drawings of these buildings and prepare for the reconstruction. At this point, it will take time. That’s why this is more mid-long term. They have to get familiar with the point cloud technology and adapt to the power it requires in terms of computing, especially with heavy point clouds.

In the longer, longer term, this will surely be part of history. They might decide to use it for museum graphics. Because again, like my experience in Beirut, what is very important, and maybe this is my conclusion at this point for everything, is that when you have a scene of damage, it is so super important to acquire it in 3D as early as possible. The scene changes very fast. Victims will be displaced, artifacts will be removed, and rubble will be cleared. In the ideal world, as soon as something happens, up until the day after, go and scan.

MH: Emmanuel, I really can’t thank you enough for visiting with us today. Especially for taking us through your trip, day by day, in such detail. It was really fascinating to hear about your whole experience and how this data is already making an impact along with its potential in the future. So again, thank you.

To learn more about Emmanuel’s work and see point clouds and photographs from his time in Ukraine, you can read our case study on the Leica Geosystems website, and you can also follow Emmanuel on Instagram: @amann.engineer or you can visit his website: www.amann.engineering

If you enjoyed this podcast and are interested in hearing more on this topic, we actually have another great episode in this series on Scanning in Ukraine with members of Skeiron, who you may remember Emmanuel mentioned working with during his scan of the church in Lviv. They are also specialists in 3D data and laser scanning, and they’ve really made it their mission to digitise historic sites across the country. They’re hoping that through their 3D models that no matter what the future holds for Ukraine, these landmarks will be digitally preserved just as they are today. Theirs is certainly also an inspiring storey and I can highly recommend it.

Additionally, we want to put the call out to you, our listeners, to share your digital reality storeys with us. It’s so inspiring and interesting to learn about the way you’re putting Leica Geosystems’ reality capture technologies to work in the world. If you have a storey about your own projects to share, please email us at digitalrealities.geo@leica-geosystems.com. That’s it for this episode of Digital Realities. I hope you join us again next time. Until then, I wish you happy capturing, collaborating, and creating.