Out of SITE

Using Technology to Bring History to Life

two women stand facing a digital screen that takes up entire wall and depicts a blue sky and green grass, with their backs to the camera

By Katie Eickhoff

On a hot day in July, Northrop Grumman Research Scientist Jennifer VanBerschot and a team of engineers walked between several adobe mudbrick structures at Fort Selden in southern New Mexico. The site is located on the historic El Camino Real, an indigenous trade route later used by Spanish settlers. In the 1800s, the Fort was constructed on the site and used by the U.S. military including four units of “Buffalo soldiers,” regiments of Black soldiers that formed after the Civil War and served primarily in the western United States.

The site represents the layered history of New Mexico, and Jennifer and the Cultural Scans for an Interactive 3D Experience (SITEs) team were there to help tell these stories using technology.

Man holds up drone in the desert of New Mexico.

The Right Team for the Job

SITEs is an expansion of Northrop Grumman’s Technology for Conservation (T4C) initiative, through which Northrop Grumman engineers use technology to aid conservation work while growing their skills. Traditionally, T4C projects have focused on conserving the natural environment, but the SITEs team focused on technologies to aid in cultural conservation.

The team decided on photogrammetry, or image-based modeling, which can take photographs and drone imagery of cultural sites as well as light detection and ranging (LiDAR), which can be used to scan above and below the ground.

“We wanted to hone our skill with these technologies for the business, while helping our community,” said Jennifer.

Jennifer called the New Mexico Humanities Council (NMHC) — which had previously expressed interest in using technology to preserve historic sites, like Fort Selden, that are inaccessible or lack resources for study — to see if NMHC would be interested in partnering with the SITEs team.

“We needed sophisticated technology with capable people at the helm,” said NMHC Program Manager Bethany Tabor. “Having Northop Grumman step in filled a major gap.”

Paths Converge

With their partnership established, the SITEs team then worked with NMHC and the New Mexico Historic Sites system to select places to scan starting with Fort Selden, which is located on Apache land. The NMHC has relationships with Native American tribes, including the Apache, to ensure that all cultural preservation work done on-site has the tribes’ full support.

The digital preservation of each site, using photogrammetry and LiDAR, will leave no trace. It will identify the original state of buildings and artifacts as well as meet the audiences of today in digital spaces, where they can go beyond plastic signs fading in the sun and use tools like augmented reality to learn the stories of peoples who used the area.

“So many different narratives converge in New Mexico, where you have thousands of years of human history,” said Bethany. “Having a digital environment provides us with more space to be able to tell those narratives.

”The Fort Selden scan is the initial chapter in the collection of stories that technology will help tell in southern New Mexico. The next site on the team’s list is Sevilleta, New Mexico, which was home to a Pueblo people called the Los Peros. The site is crumbling back into the desert, and without study and digital preservation efforts, the story of the Los Peros could be completely lost.

The data from Fort Selden and, later, Sevilleta, will be used to render 3D, immersive models of the locations. A 3D model walkthrough would support a deeper appreciation for the people and cultures who have long called the sites home.

“Technology is a tool to bring history to life,” said Jennifer. “Technology helps us bring that commitment to shared success to everyone who has a story to tell — past and present.”

Learn more about Northrop Grumman’s commitment to sustainable innovation and environmental, social and governance issues, or explore what life is like at Northrop Grumman.


Above: Dan Otero, a member of the Northrop Grumman SITEs team, launches a drone to gather imagery data of a historical site in southern New Mexico.
Top: A member of the Northrop Grumman SITEs team and the New Mexico Humanities Council examine a 3D scan of Ft. Selden, a historic site in New Mexico.

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