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Using 3D scanning to preserve fossils

Before they become damaged by extraction and erosion, palaeontologists have started using handheld 3D scanners to preserve fossils in Kenya.

Artec's Denis Baev scanning the fossilised remains of an extinct elephant. Artec

We've seen 3D scanners used to map historic buildings and recreate crime scenes -- now palaeontologists are getting in on the action, using 3D scanners on site at a dig in Kenya to perform immediate scans of fossils before further damage can occur -- preserving their best state for future study.

Two handheld 3D scanners were used on location in the Turkana Basin by palaeontologists working with the Turkana Basin Institute with the incredible finds therein. From August 24, the team had access to Eva and Spider, 3D scanners created by Artec, the company behind Shapify 3D-printed selfies.

The conditions, however, in the Turkana Basin are little more complex than a living room with a Kinect pre-installed. Firstly, there is no ready power supply, so the scanners need to have some pretty hefty battery life behind them. By disconnecting the battery when the scanner was not in use, the team -- joined by two 3D specialists from Artec, Denis Baev and Francisco Correa, for two weeks -- was able to stretch the scanner's power supply to two days.

3D model of a crocodile skull. Artec

The climate in Kenya is also not particularly conducive to electronics. Although the scanner managed to perform consistently, the connected laptop receiving the 3D files did overheat in the sun; and the harsh, bright sunlight is not conducive to an accurate scan, and the team found they had to move some fossils into the shade.

However, during the two-week period in the basin using Eva and Spider, Artec's specialists were able to successfully fully scan a crocodile skull, the skeleton of another, 1.8 Million-year-old crocodile, a giant tortoise and an extinct elephant.

"The fossils are almost two million years old. Time and weather conditions have caused visible damage to them," wrote Baev in a blog post. "Our 3D scanner will record their current condition, before it worsens further. Replicas of the fossils will be created from the 3D models and will replace the original remains, which will be safely moved to a museum."

Once the on-site fossils were scanned, the team returned to the Institute's lab and scanned the fossilised remains of extinct animals -- including fossilised hominid skulls -- and the skulls of living endangered animals from Sibiloi National Park.