25 Years ArcTron

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Interview - 25 years of ArcTron

For the 25th company anniversary Nils Stadje asked the co-founder Martin Schaich about the company’s roots, the current status quo and his vision of the future.

You can find the interview article in the web magazine Techtag:
IT und Hightech: So spannend sieht Archäologie im 21. Jahrhundert aus (Ger)

You can find the full interview here:

Since 1989 I have been self-employed with a grown team of specialists averaging approx. 30 employees. The three- and possibly multidimensional documentation and data processing with different sensors was always in our and my focus. This is the only way to document archaeological excavations, monuments, finds and objects in a comprehensive, holistic, economically efficient and comprehensible methodology and to make it available for posterity and research.
Relatively quickly it became clear that a team of different specialists was needed if the entire 3D value chain was to be exploited. This led to the prompt creation of other departments that developed the necessary software, participated in research projects, prepared the collected data in multimedia form for museums and exhibitions, and used the various 3D printing technologies to build haptic, true-to-scale 3D models.
It is fascinating for me again and again to see the development of the last 25-30 years in front of my eyes. While in the early 1990s it was a “milestone” to develop software that generated CAD vector plans of the excavation findings from tachymeter data, today we are standing in the middle of an excavation in Selinunt (Sicily) with VR headsets and can virtually study and discuss the photorealistically scanned 3D findings in 1:1. The technological progress is really breathtaking!

Already during my studies in Munich and Regensburg I had the chance to work with the first computers – at that time still green monitors and oversized disk drives – and software applications in the pool rooms of the university from the middle of the 80s on. DOS operating systems, word processing, databases and CAD were in my focus at that time.
With the foundation of our excavation company ArcTron – Ausgrabungen & Computerdokumentationen GmbH in 1993, the starting signal was given for our development ArchaeoCAD, an AutoCAD application coupled with relatively new measuring instruments (total station/tachymeter). Even today – almost 25 years later – ArchaeoCAD is still a widely used and constantly further developed standard application in computer-aided excavation documentation and used by many universities, archaeological authorities and excavation companies.

After we had developed and built our own laser pantograph in the late 1990s in order to be able to document 3D more easily and effectively, we were overwhelmed by the rapid industrial development of 3D laser scanning technology. So in 2001 I decided to apply for a larger loan from our house bank, buy a 3D laser scanner and 3D software packages and found ArcTron 3D-Messtechnik und Softwareentwicklungs GmbH. Since then we have been involved in a variety of often combined 3D measurement technologies and software developments – in particular laser scanning and photogrammetry and their often merged data processing, especially in our special fields of heritage conservation, archaeology & restoration sciences.

We are equipped with state-of-the-art terrestrial and airborne industrial 3D laser scanning & photogrammetry solutions.
3D technology is of course constantly evolving – for example, it is becoming lighter, more mobile, more powerful and more accepted – and so you have to try to stay on the ball, sometimes with great financial efforts.
For me personally as a passionate paraglider pilot and ultra-light pilot, the founding of ArcTron – Airborne Sensing GmbH in 2009 was another important milestone. Here we work especially with airborne laser scanning technologies and airborne photogrammetry from the motorized paraglider trike or with corresponding camera-carrying flight robots (UAVs). In archaeological research projects in recent years, we have also been able to gain exciting experience with other sensors such as IR thermal cameras and multi and hyperspectral sensors.
Airborne laser scanning is known to filter vegetation, i.e. the forest can be “virtually cut down”. For archaeologists, this has resulted in a dramatic increase in knowledge about the ground monuments hidden in the forest!
Probably the biggest “revolution” in 3D data acquisition has come about in the last 10 years with the “renaissance” of photogrammetry. With overlapping image series from different angles, it is now possible to create fascinatingly accurate and realistic 3D models using the so-called SFM (Structure from Motion) process.
One of the most exciting aspects of our work at the moment is the effective fusion of these different 3D data acquisition methods.

For a long time almost 100% of our projects were exclusively in the fields of research, preservation of historical monuments, archaeology and relevant museums – mostly state, public and municipal clients. Over the past 20 years we have realised a total of around 1,200 projects worldwide, but of course with a focus on German-speaking countries. We were able to realise more than 40 projects in UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Unfortunately, the financial resources in archaeology and monument conservation are often critical. “High-tech” projects are therefore comparatively rare and often underfinanced.
In recent years, we have therefore made increasing efforts to extend our services to complex industrial tasks and the media sector.

3D scanning technologies are “basic” documentation techniques, which hopefully will and must establish themselves as standard documentation technologies in archaeology in the coming years anyway. They are therefore in my opinion a generally indispensable basis for all further work!
They are suitable wherever precise and, if necessary, photorealistic three-dimensional findings such as building features, walls, ovens, skeletons, shard pavements, etc. have to be documented and visualized. Especially with three-dimensional, layer-related excavation techniques – i.e. the so-called stratigraphic excavation – in my opinion there is no way around a corresponding 3D documentation.
Only in a so-called planum excavation, in which ditches, postholes and pits are to be documented in several flat surfaces, it may be sufficient to document only the contours, possibly coupled with e.g. airborne photogrammetry.
In general, we all know that the excavation irrevocably destroys the archaeological findings. The need for systematic 3D inventory and archiving has been underscored in recent years by another sad topicality: the massive destruction of archaeological world heritage sites, for example in Syria. But also natural disasters, urban sprawl, massive land consumption and a wide variety of environmental influences mean that we lose our cultural heritage faster than we can physically preserve it.
The more precisely and carefully this is documented for posterity, especially for the scientific evaluation that often only begins years or decades later, the better!

The documentation of small finds is usually carried out with optical triangulation scanners, which measure precisely in the 1/10 mm range or even more precisely. Here, too, a lot has happened in recent years and mobile hand-held systems are increasingly being used, which can cope with a wide variety of light conditions and document not only the geometry but also the surface textures accurately. Colour calibration, reflection properties of surfaces etc. are further exciting current issues in digital documentation.
The fragility of such finds can be monitored with these technologies. Climatic conditions such as temperature, humidity etc. influence the condition of these finds. The comparison of actual data and nominal target data by means of the 3D documentation can indicate changes, deformations or stabilisations of such objects. Also for the description of the condition before and after dispatch of high-quality exhibits, there is a legally binding preservation of evidence for the objects, which are often insured with maximum sums.
Another procedure where the objects have to be transported to the machine, however, is 3D X-ray computed tomography, which completely illuminates the objects and in this way can make the interior, but also different materials, visible. In this way we gain important information about specific artists, restorations or even forgeries.
All these procedures have in common that the result is highly accurate digital data sets that can easily be sent online and thus be studied on the computers of scientists or interested parties anywhere in the world. With the new WebGL technologies, 3D data sets can increasingly be “travelled” directly on the Internet.
Working with the original can only replace this – at least emotionally – to some extent. However, many fundamental questions can also be answered on the basis of the digital data set.

The relevant museums are an important figurehead of the archaeological and monument conservation work carried out. All the more visitors have to be animated, fascinated, enthusiastic and interactively involved. In my opinion, this is best achieved with a balanced mix of appealing exhibition design, scientific information, traditional communication concepts and the integration of modern and latest technologies.
In addition to general 2D and 3D media production with visualizations, animations and film documentation for the museum cinema, we design and develop various interactive museum exhibits ourselves from our 3D data.
Keywords here are highly detailed 3D prints as an alternative to classic model making or oversized CNC-milled 3D puzzles. Also with regard to the inclusion, e.g. the inclusion of blind and visually impaired people, the “HighResolution 3D-Printing” offers new possibilities to process the information purposefully. Plans and graphics printed in flat relief are suitable for outdoor use, are colored in offset quality, have an extremely high resolution in the micrometer range, are abrasion-resistant and can therefore be felt and felt. Especially the latter point causes a kind of paradigm shift in paintings, for example. For example, we were able to reproduce a highly accurately scanned August Macke in color and with the intentional 3D color strokes of the artist 1:1. Touching this replica of the painting is now expressly desired.
Furthermore, we are working on interactive, beamer-supported 3D projections on real or 3D-printed objects, which, for example, allow the representation of dynamic and animated landscape models. The former colourfulness of Roman monuments can also be visualised by means of a corresponding projection. The scientific certainties and uncertainties in these reconstructions and visualizations should, of course, always be specifically addressed.
VR (Virtual Reality) headsets allow the concrete experience of the 3D-scanned “reality”, possibly combined with further textual, visual, animated or acoustic explanations, and are currently moving into the first museum & exhibition concepts. The immersive experience fully captures the visitor. The VR glasses allow interactive flights over and virtual visits to the castle of Vianden (Luxembourg), which we have completely digitally documented inside and outside and reconstructed in various phases. Further contents are conveyed with interactive and playful tasks in the sense of “Serious Games”, which are didactically elaborated and impart knowledge. Complete “virtual museums” allow completely new approaches in which the visitor himself interacts with the virtual exhibits in a new way and explores their functions. Using APPs and the integrated Augmented Reality (AR), existing maps, 2D and 3D objects, for example, can be overlaid with additional text, graphics, 3D and audio information. For this purpose, the camera of the smartphone or tablet (keyword: “bring your own device”), which is activated with a real-time image, is used. For example, the real-time image of the exhibit of a fragmented helmet can be superimposed with the reconstruction of the same in its former completeness and splendour. Even scale reduced 3D-printed models, e.g. of an excavation site, can be superimposed with information and the 3D-reconstruction of the building. The interaction and use of the APP in the visitor’s own smartphone creates a different bond and identification for the visitor, as well as the option of deepening content at home even further later and “sharing” what has been experienced in the social media.

For me personally and emotionally the original is always the original and can’t be replaced by anything – there are no digital compromises here.
However, a digital and virtual journey to the object can prepare and clarify many otherwise perhaps not easily solvable questions in advance. To arrive on site informed by virtual tours about spatial connections and backgrounds and to know to a good extent what to expect, has its own charm for me!

Of course, these techniques are and are also used in industrial environments. Digitalization and BigData research is already further along in many respects. In the digital factory, many processes are first simulated digitally.
Machine training and maintenance tasks are supervised and implemented via VR and AR applications, for example in the corresponding glasses.
Our speciality is above all the precise and photorealistic measurement and visualization of 3D objects with high metrological accuracy and their further processing up to real-time capable models for simulation environments.
In this respect, this specialization was also required several times in industry. For BMW, for example, we were able to measure and visualize a 3D model of a larger street area with adjacent buildings, accurate to the mm. The data will be used in the further development of autonomous driving for current tests of the laser scanners and cameras integrated in the new cars. The 3D model was then integrated into the Group’s own simulation environment as a “Ground-Truth-Dataset”.
We were also able to provide our expertise to the insurance industry. For example, we worked with Allianz on forensic evidence preservation and 3D documentation of burst or exploded rollers and industrial cylinders. Our experience in “3D puzzling” was particularly beneficial here. In archaeology, objects are often composed of many parts. A similar task was the assembly of the individual roller and cylinder parts in order to enable the material scientists involved to draw further conclusions about the actual damage event.

Over the last 25 years, there have always been highly interesting projects!
Even though you always have to “fight” for orders and projects, I would like to say that I am extremely happy that we have such an open and generally culturally interested and committed society, which allows us to make a living for our employees, myself and our families, even with a private-sector focus in the field of archaeology and monument conservation!
Highlights, however, were without question always the trips to distant countries, such as the airborne laser scanning survey in Karabalgassun in the Orchon Valley in central Mongolia, where we were able to document a completely undeveloped, forgotten city in the steppe for the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) on over 40 square kilometers.
The Peru trip to Chavín and the Casma Valley for the Rietberg Museum in Zurich and the subsequent creation of graphics, films and exhibits for the international exhibition was also a great experience.
In China, we were able to take pictures of some newly found terracotta warriors in Xian for pigment-compatible colour reconstructions and take a personal look at the famous terracotta army.
Finally, in Sichuan Province we documented a monumental 7m high Buddha statue in combination with laser scanning, strip light scanning & photogrammetry. Many of these strip light scans took place at night, surrounded by bats that ate the moths attracted by the spotlights – a special experience!
One of our most exciting projects is perhaps Vianden Castle in Luxembourg. On behalf of the local state preservation of historical monuments (SSMN) we have been working here for 12 years on the 3D documentation, visualisation and reconstruction of this fascinating castle. Here the entire 3D process chain could be realized up to the museum exhibits with model construction, animations and cinema film. The corresponding visitor information centre will be opened next month – I can only warmly recommend a trip to Vianden!
As far as research is concerned, we are currently working together with Prof. Bernd Fröhlich and his team from the “Virtual Reality and Visualization Research Group” at the Bauhaus University Weimar in a research project for the second time. This time it is about research work on whether and how the concrete quality of 3D data can be analyzed, described and, for example, visualized in 3D quality mappings after it has been collected with different sensors, but also in the context of complex further processing and data fusion processes. The Virtual Reality Lab in Weimar and the cooperative work in this virtual 3D environment are always a bit of “science fiction” and a special experience for us.

For the documentation of archaeological excavations I assume a fast increasing multisensory digitization and robotization. Autonomous or if necessary still specifically programmed flying and terrestrially operating multisensor robotic systems by scientists will enable a comprehensive documentation of the excavation. The 3D documentation with conclusions on the concrete material properties, with color-calibrated textures and with the recording of the specific reflection properties will only be a small component here. Mobile geophysical as well as hyper- and multispectral sensors, pedological and scientific physics and chemistry laboratories etc. will be added.
However, archaeologists will remain responsible for the excavation itself, for the proper analysis of findings and for the excavation and uncovering of findings for a long time to come.

In the future, one can assume a considerable increase in computer support for the evaluation. Dating suggestions etc. will be made by the computer via extensive libraries and comparisons. Machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence) will increasingly find their way into archaeology. Typological object classifications, findings comparisons, 3D puzzle tasks etc. will be carried out more simply, more comprehensively, more appropriately and more efficiently with the aid of computers.
On the Internet, comprehensive analyses and studies will be possible largely automatically via freely accessible databases.
For standardized architecture, such as the entire typical Roman military building, but also many prehistoric and medieval buildings, I can imagine a largely automated virtual reconstruction – possibly also in different probability variants. Much of this will take place in the virtual reality, in which the archaeological site or the respective find can be visited worldwide by the experts but also by the interested public.
For visitors to archaeological open-air parks and museums, Augmented Reality will be a new digital “guiding” vision, in which they can freely set themselves where they want, play with the augmented content in an age-appropriate and playful way, or in a more in-depth way.
Much else is conceivable – it would be too far to indulge in the fantasies of a digital archaeologist!