CyArk's 12-person team creates 3D digital models with laser-scanning instruments that replicate a site to within a few millimetres of accuracy.

When some of Iraq's most historic sites were destroyed by war, Ben Kacyra decided to sell his civil engineering company and start a nonprofit in 2003 with the mission of digitally preserving cultural heritage sites throughout the world with 3D laser imaging.

Kacyra, an Iraqi-born US citizen, is providing the open access to those images through his organization, CyArk (short for Cyber Ark).

In the US, CyArk has already created 3D digital images of Mount Rushmore, Spanish missions in Texas, and Tudor Place, home to six generations of George Washington's family.

"We're out to build the Alexandria Library of 3D heritage data," said Tom Greaves, executive director of CyArk.

Iconic sights both old and new

Other sites around the world for which CyArk has already created digital images include the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the ancient Hindu temple complex at Angkor Wat, Easter Island's head statues, Inca ruins in Peru, and Thebes, the capital of ancient Egypt. Of course, not all the sites are all that ancient. Next week, CyArk will be in Australia generating a 3D digital image of the Sydney Opera House.

The images have a number of uses, from simply offering educators authentic reproductions for teaching purposes to giving architects and engineers the exacting dimensions they may need to restore or rebuild historic sites ravaged by time and man-made or natural disasters.

Greaves said in an interview that collecting the digital images on disk drives has been expensive, and the current backup process is far to manual. Up until last September, CyArk's digitization projects had only taken 60TB of disk storage, but with more than 500 future projects scheduled, the organization expects its storage needs to grow at 30% per year over the next five years.

In fact, the organization recently upped its storage capacity to 100TB.

"Some time in the next five years we'll hit two petabytes of storage, and we certainly don't want to put two petabytes on disks," Greaves said.

A team from CyArk repels down the face of Mount Rushmore and sets up a laser scanner on George Washington's nose

Each 3D image project collects billions of data points, adding up to anywhere from 500GB to 10TB of capacity per project. Up until now, CyArk had been backing up its digital images on USB-connected hard disk drives. Once a disk was filled, it would be driven to a bank in Oakland, California, and stored in a safe deposit box. Of course, getting that backup drive back in the event server drive failure required someone to drive over to the bank and retrieve it. And, as Greaves noted, the disk drives had a relatively short shelf life.

CyArk decided to switch its archive strategy to magnetic tape and purchased a tape carousel that used the linear tape file system (LTFS) open format to record the images. It has also partnered with Iron Mountain to store those images in perpetuity in the company's limestone mine storage facility in Pennsylvania.

CyArk's website has been relatively popular, with 1.5 million hits since going live. CyArk also has an iPad app for viewing the historic sites.

"Visitors to our website can navigate it in 3D," Greaves said.

The website also provides a historic tour of sites, such as the Japanese-American confinement camps that were set up in California during World War II.

"If you visit the sites today, there's not a lot to see, but with our technology today, those camps are recreated the way they were in 1943," Greaves said. "We also worked with Japanese-American societies and captured audio histories. These sites are at risk from earthquakes, wars, acts of terrorism, floods and fires. We think it would be a tragedy for humans to forget where they came from."