Australian scientists have become the first to capture the intricate interiors of Italy’s iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa through 3D mapping technology.

The breakthrough technology they used is a mobile laser mapping system called Zebedee, which was created by the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

Zebedee’s name was inspired by French/British children’s program The Magic Roundabout and was developed with the intention of being able to document historic and heritage sites for preservation.

Traditional 3D mapping technology generally requires setting up a tripod and is slow to capture enough images for mapping. Zebedee, on the other hand, is a handheld device which sits on a spring. It sways forward and back, capturing a space in the time it takes to walk through it.

Once captured, specialised software converts the data into a detailed 3D map. This can be viewed on a desktop or can be presented within a “projection cave” where software users can go in and immerse themselves within the design so they feel as though they are standing within the tower.

It took just 20 minutes for a CSIRO researcher to climb the Leaning Tower’s nearly 300 stairs and map the interiors of Pisa’s 56-metre freestanding bell tower, which dates back to 1372.

According to the CSIRO, mapping the tower has been attempted in the past, but its cramped stairs and complex architecture have prevented previous mapping technology from capturing its interior.

Dr Jonathan Roberts and Zebedee

Dr Jonathan Roberts and Zebedee

“This technology is ideal for cultural heritage mapping, which is usually very time consuming and labour intensive,” explained Dr Jonathan Roberts, research program leader at CSIRO’s Computational Informatics Division. “It can often take a whole research team a number of days or weeks to map a site with the accuracy and detail of what we can produce in a few hours.”

“Within 20 minutes we were able to use Zebedee to complete an entire scan of the building’s interior. This allowed us to create a uniquely comprehensive and accurate 3D map of the tower’s structure and composition, including small details in the stairs and stonework.”

For Project Pisa, the CSIRO collaborated with Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna (SSSA), a local Italian research university who believe the technology will be useful in preserving the site.

“Our detailed record of the Leaning Tower of Pisa may one day be critical in being able to reconstruct the site if it was to suffer catastrophic damage due to natural disasters such as a fire or an earthquake,” said Franco Tecchia, assistant professor at the PERCRO Perceptual Robotics 
lab. “Having a detailed 3D model of the world’s most significant cultural heritage sites could also be used to allow people who cannot physically visit these sites to better understand and appreciate their history and architecture.”

In Australia, the CSIRO has joined forces with The University of Queensland for a research invitaitive which involves using Zebedee to capture historic sites of Moreton Bay.

To date, they have collected data from 19th century Brisbane River defences at Fort Lytton and Peel Island’s leper colony buildings.

The technology offers the opportunity to map and record challenging interior environments, particularly across historic and heritage sites, and to be able to document them in a detailed way simply by walking through them.

Zebedee could prove very useful for restoration purposes, particularly with continuing concerns regarding climate change and the impact of natural disasters on the architectural environment.