May 03, 2013 12:00AM
Jason Ward was just looking for some rocks.
The assistant professor in Pittsburg State University’s Graphics and Imaging Technology Department was trying to find an ideal object to scan with the department’s Next Engine 3-D scanner.
One of his students, Sean McCartney, asked Ward what objects scan the best.
“Rocks,” Ward replied.
“How about fossils,” McCartney asked.
“Close enough,” Ward said. “Bring them in.”
Neither knew it at the time, but that brief conversation led to the start of a project that could end up changing the way science studies dinosaurs and other ancient species.
“I brought in some fossils, and it just kind of took off from there,” McCartney, an engineering technology major, said. “It’s very rare, especially in the field of paleontology, that new ideas and technology pop up. It’s exciting stuff.”
McCartney, an amateur paleontologist, and Ward are in the process of making 3-D scans of fossils the former has collected over the past 30 years. The scans will be used to create digital archives of the fossils, which will enhance the study of the ancient bones.
“It’s really amazing,” McCartney said. “We can take this new technology from the construction industry, merge it with technology for graphics, and create a virtual database of the fossils. We can also incorporate research material with each digital fossil. With hyperlinks, we could tie every piece of research ever written about a particular bone to that digital file.”
Once in digital format, the bones can be repaired and restored to their original form. And, through the use of 3-D printing, exact replicas of dinosaur bones can be created.
“A lot of bones that we find have deformation and damage,” McCartney said. “Once we scan them in, we can use software to correct all the imperfections and give you a perfect bone. The 3-D printers can then produce them, and what you could end up seeing is a dinosaur skeleton just as it would be have been millions of years ago.
“We’ll no longer have to rely on artists to give us a best guess of what dinosaurs looked like and behaved,” he said. “We’ll have it. We’ll be able to assign muscles to connection points. We can better study how they moved. We can test and determine how much force was in a set of jaws or how much strength was in a set of T-Rex arms. It’s amazing what we can study with this technology.”
Ward said the 3-D technology is making the impossible possible.
“Once you have a 3-D scan of the object, you can always replicate it,” he said. “If you have something that is one of a kind, such as a dinosaur fossil, you can replicate it out of anything. That’s something that has basically been impossible, because a lot of these things are immeasurable. They are out of the right-angle world.”
Ward said the process can be described as “reverse engineering.”
“If something is broke, we can use this technology to put it back together as it was,” he said. “You’re seeing this in dental work, with prosthetics and now in archaeology. It’s so interdisciplinary you can almost apply it to every department at the university.”
McCartney said PSU is one of the few institutions to currently use 3-D scanning for this purpose. For that reason, he said some other universities and museums are working with PSU to create digital scans of some of their fossils and artifacts.
“We’re getting a lot of attention from other places that want us to help them create digital archives of their objects,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting to see just how far this little project can go.”