Iconic grain elevators in Alberta digitally preserved in a virtual reality project

One of Nanton's two grain elevators that dominate the small town skyline.  The historical structures are preserved digitally.  (Dan McGarvey/CBC - photo credit)

One of Nanton’s two grain elevators that dominate the small town skyline. The historical structures are preserved digitally. (Dan McGarvey/CBC – photo credit)

Grain elevators are disappearing from the Canadian landscape at a breathtaking rate, but the small town of Nanton, Alta. leads the tech race to save and preserve his own pair of prairie guards in the digital realm.

Only 120 elevators remain in Alberta, a number that has declined from more than 5,000 in the 1950s. It is estimated that around 10 to 15 elevators disappear each year, and forever.

The elevators once transported grain from local farmers to global markets by rail.

A project involving the University of Calgary, SAIT and Lethbridge College is underway in Nanton, south of Calgary. It will use the latest 3D modeling technology to record and preserve his two lifts as they approach 100 years of age in the Alberta countryside.

“We reached out to the University of Calgary, who had a project documenting historic buildings in Alberta, and we asked them if they would like to see our elevators,” said Leo Wieser, president of the city’s Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Center .

Dan McGarvey/CBC

Dan McGarvey/CBC

“3D scanning will forever keep them in the digital universe,” Wieser said.

SAIT students use state-of-the-art mapping equipment and software to model the elevators. Then, students at Lethbridge will use the data to create a virtual reality space.

“The SAIT students can put together a project, the U of C gets the data, and we can create drawings to use in repurposing and renovating, which will help save these buildings for another 100 years,” Wieser said .

“And God forbid, if anything happens, we still have the digital record of how they were built and what the space looked like,” he said.

The Nanton elevators were granted provincial historical monument status in 2022, and the digital records created protect their history for future generations.

“It’s incredible to put on a VR headset and walk through something that exists around the world, so we’re opening it up to a much broader audience,” Wieser said.

Dan McGarvey/CBC

Dan McGarvey/CBC

The project allows SAIT’s civil engineering students to get their hands on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of state-of-the-art mobile 3D scanning devices and gain invaluable experience.

“We use it to scan and create 3D models of buildings and other structures, confined areas, and it’s much faster and extremely accurate,” said Rick Duchscher, drone supervisor at the SAIT School of Construction.

According to Duchscher, the project gives students an edge by introducing them to new technologies that aren’t even available in the industry yet.

“The technology is used by the geomatics industry and architects would also find this technology very appealing, but it is limitless in terms of the different disciplines that would use this equipment,” he said.

“It scans everything in close proximity, so it’s perfect for buildings like this,” said Dario Kastaun, a civil engineering student. “That’s how technology evolves, so it’s great to get a hands-on feel before it’s rolled out to everyone in the industry.”

“I’m just happy to be part of a project where we can bring back something that almost got lost. The end product will be something like Google Maps where you can walk around and take a tour in high resolution,” he said.

Dan McGarvey/CBC

Dan McGarvey/CBC

The data collected is stored in the U of C archives for future use and is made available to the public.

Wieser says the project comes about as his organization is in fundraising mode to continue maintaining the elevators, hosting events like movie nights, music concerts and various arts events, and trying to make the elevators a focal point for the city and visitors Attract from surrounding towns and cities, including Calgary.

“The digital side is just an additional area for the work we’re trying to do to keep these things alive,” he said.


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