Students hid behind pepper trees at Mission Santa Inés in Solvang on a recent Friday morning as they took images and scanned structures for their one-of-a-kind project involving a 3-D laser.

A group of students in the Environmental and Spactial Technologies (EAST) program at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School are the first high school students in the world using Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), which rapidly captures millions of points to construct a 3-D image of an object.

“This technology allows us to reconstruct objects, buildings and other things that are historic and valuable so in case anything happens like a fire or flood, it can be recreated,” said McKensey Richmond, a junior in the program.

After watching a TED talk about the laser technology, Superintendent Paul Turnbull got together with teacher Chip Fenenga and Santa Barbara County Regional Occupation Program (ROP) director Tony Bauer to introduce the technology at the school. Created by CyARK, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization, the objective is to digitally preserve cultural heritage sites by collecting, archiving and providing access created by laser scanning, digital modeling and other state-of-the-art technologies.

“With this laser scanner and software you can literally fly through and around structures or objects and it has an accuracy down to the millimeter,” Fenenga told Noozhawk. “The opportunity these students have with this is amazing because it provides hands-on experience that is way ahead of the field.”

Stephanie Aichinger, a Santa Ynez High senior, is considering attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as an architecture major, especially since she has had been using the EAST program to document the mission, the mission’s Grist Mill for the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation and horse carriages for the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society.

“To be able to preserve these historical pieces for the future is so cool to be a part of,” Aichinger said. “The aspect of architecture I like is how building design mimics the society and people of that era, so this project fits those together.”

The laser scanner is positioned up to 43 yards away from the object and rotates to capture more than 1 million measurements every minute. The scanner also takes color pictures of the scan area and maps the color or texture information.

“We then take the scans and put them together into the program and select what we don’t want, like shadows or people walking through the area,” said Alice Mullin, a senior student involved with the project. “Once the image is cleaned up, the 3-D model is created.”

CyArk is using this technology for its worldwide CyArk 500 Challenge, which is to digitally preserve 500 of the most important world heritage sites over a five-year period. Sites include the pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Mayan ruins and many other notable places.

The LiDAR technology has application in fields like agriculture, archaeology, atmospheric physics, forensics, forestry, geology, geomorphology, military and law enforcement, mapping and remote sensing.

“Our hope it to make this technology available to the community so they can essentially borrow the laser and use it for many things, like scanning local archaeological sites, in forensic cases scanning crime scenes or mapping trail systems,” Fenenga said.

Fenenga noted that UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly don’t have the technology and he said he hopes the school can work with them in the future.

Click here for more information on CyARK, or contact Fenenga at

— Raiza Giorgi is a Noozhawk contributing writer from the Santa Ynez Valley. She can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.