Culture / Technology

How Drones and Robots Helped Save Notre Dame

21 Apr 2019 6:00am, by

2010 photo by Edal Anton Lefterov - Creative Commons via Wikipedia

When Notre Dame cathedral faced a fire in the 21st century, it was modern technology that helped fight the flames — and it will be modern technology that repairs the damage and sends it off towards its next millennium.

The site Hackaday marveled at humankind’s resourcefulness, applauding the emergency responders while noting that “fighting side by side with them were cutting-edge pieces of technology” that guided the firefighters — and sometimes took their place.

And stories in the days that follow offer hints about how our emerging technologies — occasionally aided by the cloud — will be used in the years to come.

Send in the Drones

First on the list were the two DJI drones — a Mavic Pro and Matrice M210 — which provided up-close aerial views of the flames. Ironically, drones are prohibited in Paris, but these were government-owned drones — from the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture — so presumably their region-limiting “geofencing” had already been disabled.

As the flames burned, the firefighters also sent in Colossus, a kind of remote-controlled miniature robot tank that sprayed a continuous stream of water. The 1,100-pound “unmanned ground vehicle” moves into position at just two miles per hour —controlled by a joystick — but it’s waterproof, protected against heat, and equipped with a water cannon. Hackaday notes that it’s being credited for saving the stained glass windows, by creating a cooling effect.

The Washington Post reports that Colossus can also climb stairs — and that it may be a harbinger of things to come. Citing French officials, the Post calls Colossus “part of a new wave of firefighting machines that are being used to keep people out of harm’s way when fires break out,” saying that Colossus’s performance “may be remembered as the beginning of a new era of robotic firefighting.”

They point out that many other groups are also developing similar firefighting machines, including similar robots in China, and the industrial firefighting robots manufactured by Howe and Howe Technologies and Lockheed Martin’s Fire Ox. “The machines keep people out of harm’s way and provide an alternative to the age-old practice of hauling a heavy, unwieldy fire hose into a cluttered building.”

The Post also cites Brian Lattimer, VP of R&D at safety engineering/consulting firm Jensen Hughes, who predicts soon robots will have sensors allowing them to see through smoke (for example, to identify hot spots to target with water) — and even sophisticated AI systems that allow them to operate autonomously. The ultimate goal “will be for firefighters to be in the loop with these robots to assist and evaluate the hazards so they can plan an effective response.” And he also predicts a future with collaborating robots, “in the air and on the ground – that will work closely with people and reduce the risk to human life.”

Precious Scans

But there’s another modern technology that will play a role in saving Notre Dame. Popular Mechanics notes that Vassar College Art History professor Andrew Tallon used a tripod-mounted Leica ScanStation C10 laser beam to create a 3D model that’s accurate to within five millimeters.

“I’ve been interested in the way gothic buildings stand up,” Tallon explained to National Geographic in 2015, “and the way they handle themselves structurally.” But there was a lack of written material from the era. “Masons never stopped at the end of the day and said, ‘Well, I built my cathedral this way because…'” So Talon spent five days to collect over a billion data points on the interior of the cathedral, describing it as a way of looking back in time.

The CBC notes that Tallon died last year at the age of 49. But his detailed scans may become a crucial part of restoring the cathedral, and ultimately “his efforts to capture the beauty and ingenuity of the builders of Notre Dame will become part of the long history of the Paris landmark.”

In 2013 Tallon also co-authored a book about Notre Dame, offering recreations of what it may have looked like through the passing centuries.

Tallon co-authored a book on Notre Dame (via Amazon)

If Tallon’s “scholarly work can somehow inform those who will be taking on the daunting task of restoring a cathedral to its former glory, it will be a fitting memorial for a very wonderful scholar who devoted so much to Notre-Dame,” Vassar’s dean Jon Chenette told AFP.

They report that the data is currently stored on external hard drives at Vassar, with copies at Columbia University, as part of a collaborative project named Mapping Gothic. “If architects ask for the data, it would have to be delivered in person, as it is too large to be transmitted over the internet.”

The Atlantic spoke to Vallon’s assistant for the scans, Paul Blaer, now a computer science lecturer at Columbia University. Blaer pointed out there’s roughly a terabyte of data. But Point of Beginning magazine notes that it was part of a larger work. With a grant from the Mellon Foundation support from the Lucy Maynard Salmon fund at Vassar College, Tallon was able to scan nearly 40 gothic buildings, including Canterbury Cathedral (built in 1070) and the cathedrals of Chartres and Bourges.

And those unwieldy terabytes of data will soon become one more of the unheralded activities moving to the cloud. The magazine cites Tallon’s remarks before his death on “a turnkey point-cloud distribution solution” named JetStream from Leica Geosystems.

“JetStream is now running at Vassar in Amazon Cloud Space, and will soon make possible long-distance research collaborations with specialists throughout the world.”

Restored by Robots?

But the Washington Post reminded readers that when it comes to restoring the medieval cathedral, “it may be up to robots to save it.” They interviewed Jerry Hajjar, a civil engineering professor at Northeastern University, who notes that now drones equipped with laser scanners and cameras could survey the fire damage — and create detailed 3D maps of the state of the cathedral today. There’s even X-ray-like functionality that can assess the stone walls to estimate how much stress they’re now under.

Hackaday speculates that drones may also have a role in the reconstruction of Notre Dame. “From the air, UAVs with high-resolution cameras will be able to rapidly image the entire site, which could be used to create a three dimensional model of the structure through photogrammetry; aiding in the eventual design of a modern roof which blends into the original stonework.”

There are many positive stories about technology’s role in restoring Notre Dame — but there’s also another perspective. Friday the cathedral’s rector told a meeting of local businessmen that the fire could have been caused by a computer glitch, while one UK newspaper (citing French newspapers) reported that firefighters lost valuable time when “a computer glitch sent investigators to the wrong part of the cathedral.”

So maybe ultimately the story of Notre Dame is sending us the same message that it’s been sending humankind throughout its eight long centuries.

Maybe technology, like humankind itself, still remains in a state of graceless imperfection.


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