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National Geographic Aerial Photogrammetry and LiDAR

We were tasked with aiding explorer Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin bring together his unique blend of adventure, science and archaeology to make headline-grabbing new discoveries in a groundbreaking new television series for National Geographic. Visualskies are proud to have been asked to apply our unparalleled experience and bespoke approach to 3D scanning on the ground and in the air, landscape interpretation and spatial data visualisation to realise the ambitions of National Geographic for the series. The result is Lost Cities which combines hi-tech science, breath-taking visuals and genuine exploration to bring to life some of the most extraordinary sites of antiquity.
We worked closely with Albert and the Blakeway crew to develop a narrative based upon a scientific approach to the collection of spatial data, revealing secrets from the past long forgotten by the passage of time.  The result is a series of ambitious programmes that deliver powerful, emotional stories with our hi-tech imagery to bring the mysteries of the past vividly into focus in the present.



Our first destination on this incredible tour of little known gems of the World’s heritage was the ancient city of Akko (Acre) in Israel, north of the modern city of Haifa. Akko possibly represents the tumultuous history of the land of Israel better than any other city in the country. Akko is a city that has been shaped by the Romans, Ottomans, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Byzantines, and British; and fittingly is today home to a brilliantly coexistent mixed population of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Founded during the Middle Bronze Age, Akko is among the oldest continuously inhabited places on Earth as well as one of the oldest ports in the world. The Old City of Akko is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the remains of the Crusader town both above and below street level and because the city is one of a very small number of Ottoman walled towns with citadels, mosques, khans and baths, which have been preserved. In Akko, these sites were built on top of the ruins of the Crusader town.
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For the team from Visualskies, working in Akko was an incredible journey into the past and a unique professional experience within one of the most remarkable cities on earth. To create content for the show that elucidated the remarkable remains in Akko, we worked in the air, on the ground and even, for much of the time, under it. Utilising drones, terrestrial and aerial laser scanners and our custom built AR software we enabled Albert to step back in time and truly visualise the city as it used to be in Crusader times.




We delivered an AR app to view the Fortress on site
“The quality of aerial footage captured by Visualskies is simply unmatched; it has transformed the design development process, providing a flexibility in approach and visual exploration. With the ability to capture any angle and viewpoint, there are no boundaries on what we can display anymore, from the initial concept stage right through to the high end marketing imagery”
Fahran Younas



The next destination for the crew was no less extraordinary, but substantially more remote, requiring a lengthy journey involving planes, helicopters and a jungle trek. Six hundred and fifty years before the Incas built Machu Picchu, another civilization was working on its own cities of gold. As the waves of the Caribbean lapped against the shores of northern Colombia the age of the mysterious Tayrona people had begun. What could be more intriguing to National Geographic, Albert Lin and the team from Visualskies than an ancient abandoned city? Ciudad Perdida (literally ‘Lost City’) disappeared into the jungle around the time of the Spanish Conquest and was only ‘discovered’ again in the 1970s. Hidden deep in the dense rainforest of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in Colombia, Ciudad Perdida was built by the Tayrona people more than 1,000 years ago. Also known locally by its indigenous name of Teyuna, the city consists of a series of around 170 terraces carved into the mountainside, a network of tiled roads and several small circular plazas.
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The entrance can only be accessed by a climb up some 1,200 stone steps through dense jungle. Teyuna pulsed as the heart of a network of smaller settlements along the ridges and valleys of the highest coastal mountain range in the world; the peaks of the Sierra Nevada loom over 5,700 meters (18,700 feet) above jungles stretching to the sea. In the shadows of these glacier-capped giants, priests, artisans and militia worked to expand a civilization. Modern archaeologists are engaged in a battle to discover the full scope of the enormous network of settlements around Ciudad Perdida, as well as to preserve and protect the historic site against climate, vegetation, neglect, and looting.
 The majority of the Tayrona complex is almost invisible due to the lush tree cover over the whole Sierra Nevada mountain range, so it was going to be almost impossible to document, digitise and visualise the lost remains using solely traditional survey techniques. To allow Albert and the team to find more of the lost city, we utilised both drone and helicopter-mounted 3D scanning technology that could penetrate the vegetation canopy, as well as terrestrial LiDAR, to reveal remains that, to the naked eye, were completely hidden. Visualskies worked assiduously to collect, integrate, visualise and interpret the results of the 3D scanning, enabling Albert to see the incredible new data in our Augmented Reality (AR) App and to take the crew off into uncharted territory on the quest for a new Lost City.
An example of the traditional Kogi hut was scanned
Our AR was used to show how the huts would look in the landscape



As we descended from the mountainous jungle and back into the modern World, we learned that our next destination was going to be a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pohnpei is a high island of volcanoes forged millenia ago. Now part of the Federated States of Micronesia, Pohnpei is swathed in lush tropical rainforest and is one of the most verdant and wettest places on earth, with rainfall well in excess of 5 metres per annum. It rains pretty much every day; it was a good job that the crew and kit were largely waterproof.
Initial work for the crew involved the digital documentation of an outcrop of petroglyphs that could give clues to the lives of the ancient inhabitants of Pohnpei. The site at Pohnpaip, which means ‘on the boulder’ is an extraordinary collection of over 700 prehistoric motifs carved into a natural basalt terrace. Although fading under the relentless Pohnpei rainfall, it is still possible to discern human figures, feet, hands, fish hooks, a boat the sun and moon and myriad dagger shapes. These petroglyphs provide a valuable insight into the lives and beliefs of the earliest occupants of Pohnpei. By creating 3D models of the petroglyphs, we enabled Albert and the crew to clarify the exact form of the fading petroglyphs, to study them in detail and to make comparisons with other ancient carvings from elsewhere in the Pacific.
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However, the main focus of the programme was the awe inspiring Nan Madol; an archaeological wonder adjacent to the eastern shore of Pohnpei. Few places in the Pacific, indeed on the planet, are as intriguing and mysterious as Nan Madol. Hardly known outside Micronesia, the lost city of Nan Madol is a hidden gem of Polynesian history and culture and is an awe inspiring sight for those modern people lucky enough to visit or work there. The name Nan Madol means ‘within the intervals’ and is a reference to the canals that criss-cross the ruins. The city, constructed in a lagoon, consists of myriad artificial islands linked by the network of canals. The core of the site, with its monumental basalt block walls and coral filled platforms, encompasses an area of over 18 square kilometres and is the only extant ancient city built on top of a coral reef. Nan Madol was the ceremonial and political capital of the Saudeleur Dynasty until the early part of the 17th century; although Nan Madol was the scene of human activity since the 1st or 2nd century AD, the construction of the distinctive basalt block architecture probably began in the 12th century.
The colossal scale of the beautiful edifices, their technical sophistication and the extraordinary density of the megalithic structures bear testimony to the complex social and religious organisations of the island society at this time. In the north eastern part of the site lies the breathtaking Nan Doas with walls of impossibly massive basalt blocks, in places over 7 metres tall. These surround a central tomb in an impressive courtyard that was built for the first Saudeleur. These elaborate ruins represent the ceremonial centre of the Saudeleur Dynasty; a vibrant period in Pacific Island culture. According to local legend, the basalt blocks used in the construction of Nan Madol were flown to the site by twin sorcerors Olisihpa and Olosohpa using black magic. Although archaeologists have located several quarry sites for the basalt at the opposite end of Pohnpei, the method of transportation and construction of these incredibly heavy stone blocks has still not been adequately explained.


In total 110 islets were discovered
“Micronesia was an extremely challenging environment with 100% humidity and hourly showers, keeping the drone airborne was a difficult task. Access to the site was determined by the tides. However, great planning and a strong team made the trip a success”
Joe Steel



Leaving the heat, humidity and rainfall of the Pacific island behind we headed into the arid and desolate landscape of Jordan. In this episode, we were asked to look at the amazing Nabataean sites that are the little known backstory to the World famous site of Petra. The Nabataeans were an Arab people who inhabited Northern Arabia and the Southern Levant in antiquity.
Their settlements, most prominently the assumed capital city of Raqmu or present-day Petra, gave the name of Nabataene to the borderland between Arabia and Syria, from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. We applied our 3D scanning technology to digitise and visualise various locations in the Petra hinterland, including the magnificent Nabataean temple at Khirbet Al-Darieh and the vast ancient agricultural landscapes at Ras Al-Silaysil. But perhaps the most challenging location for the equipment and the scanning team was the remote Nabataean mountain stronghold of Sela.
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Overseeing the Edom Plateau between Tafila and Busayra, and carved into a mountain top, the fortress of Sela dates back more than 3,000 years. The area was only habitable if water was managed, and this was only possible by means of constructing an impressive complex of water channels and cisterns. Access to the mountain top site is only possible up one steep stairway cut into the rock face, making the site an obvious place of safety for the Nabataeans. Possibly one of the earliest Nabataean settlements, many of the architectural lessons learnt here were later then implemented at Petra.






The pointcloud is analysed to reveal the Cisterns
360° & VR
“We’ve worked with Visualskies on numerous architectural projects around complex sites in London. They’ve always been professional, creative, and efficient. We often work to tight deadlines and have to deal with the UK weather. Visualskies have always been very flexible and accommodating”
Matthew White



As a denouement to the series the only way was up; into the mountains of the high Andes. The last programme looks at the lost ancient civilisations of Peru; taking the world famous site of Machu Picchu as an end point, the team looked for what influenced the Incas to build such incredible architecture. We were searching for Pre-Inca sites that would provide the key to unlock the architectural mysteries of the Incas and elucidate the lessons they learned and the knowledge they garnered before Machu Picchu was built.
This research took us to a Pre-Inca City of the Dead at Rayallaqta, into the remains of a volcano at Raqchi and finally up at more than 4000m above sea level at the mountain top site of Wat’a. Aside from the punishing trek with all the equipment up the mountain to reach the site and then the problems of overcoming altitude sickness once we were up there; it was also a real challenge just to keep the drones up in the air due to the thin atmosphere. We integrated our terrestrial and aerial LiDAR with photogrammetry to enable the team to look for signs of Pre-Inca settlement that were hidden in the vegetation and all but invisible to the naked eye.
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 Processing in tents up in the rarefied atmosphere with only a pair of temperamental generators for power was less than ideal, but the team were able to unravel the sequence of settlement on this Island in the Sky and suggest that the builders of Machu Picchu had already learnt their lessons well many years previously.
Living and working in the High Andes with a fantastic team of archaeologists, television crew, Peruvian pilots, guides and fixers was a real privilege for the team from Visualskies, a wondrous backdrop to our research and a fitting climax to the work we have undertaken around the World for this fascinating series.






The vegetation is digitally removed to reveal the terracing
360° & VR
“Working with Visuaskies has been an absolute revelation – they will go that extra mile for you – and in my case this was straight up, quite literally!”
Russell England
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