Test of time: How modern technology is saving Jeddah's Al-Balad heritage site

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Historical buildings in Jeddah’s Al-Balad area, one of the UNESCO-listed heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Historical buildings in Jeddah’s Al-Balad area, one of the UNESCO-listed heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Historical buildings in Jeddah’s Al-Balad area, one of the UNESCO-listed heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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Historical buildings in Jeddah’s Al-Balad area, one of the UNESCO-listed heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 11 November 2018
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Test of time: How modern technology is saving Jeddah's Al-Balad heritage site

  • Use of drones and 3D scanning is revolutionizing documentation of heritage sites in the centuries-old city
  • It is this diverse dual use of drone technology that is helping to preserve these ancient structures and restore them to their former glory

JEDDAH: In comparison with the developments of modern urban infrastructure, Jeddah’s ancient port center of Al-Balad has largely stood the test of time. 

Although Al-Balad has been a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site since 2014, many of its historical buildings have perished due to fire and disrepair. In the past 50 years, UNESCO has served to provide the incentive to preserve historical sites such as Al-Balad, which is considered a staple of Hijazi architecture. 

Assisting in these efforts is a Saudi-based 3D surveying and mapping firm called FalconViz, which uses state-of-the-art drone technology and Autodesk software to document and register these historical buildings for the preservation of future generations.

Founded in 7th century C.E., the ancient town of Al-Balad once served as the center of trade and commerce for the city of Jeddah. As centuries passed, most of the ancient walls that had surrounded the town, and the souq within it, became weathered and eventually torn down. As wealth from oil began to flow into the Saudi economy, the country began a march toward a more gleaming infrastructure complete with modern buildings. Many residents moved out of the cramped spaces of Al-Balad, leaving its more palatial homes and buildings to slow dilapidation. What remains, though, are truly exemplary remnants of ancient building styles that are seldom seen elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

 

Tackling historical buildings from new angles

Al-Balad fully embodies traditional architecture, with its use of cut coral stones and intricately hand-carved “rawashin”-style latticed windows. It is one of the few remaining locations where such architectural styles can be seen first-hand, and holds a cultural and historical significance that is particular to this region. 

Khaled Abdelgawad, director of business development and acting operations manager at FalconViz, explained how Al-Balad has an invaluable archaeological and architectural heritage. 

“It is a cultural symbol that can serve both as a tourist attraction and an invaluable memory of an era of Saudi Arabia before oil,” he said. 

However, preserving ancient buildings in this historic quarter comes with its own set of obstacles. One of the biggest challenges in Al-Balad is the tight spaces between buildings.  

“Using traditional methods to record and preserve ancient buildings would take a long time, require several teams of people and would also not be precise or accurate, particularly in the case of unique details. Unfortunately, it has been the norm for most projects in Saudi Arabia until maybe 20-30 years ago,” Abdelgawad said.

With the advent of laser-scanning technology and photogrammetry, the procedure has become exponentially more efficient. Together with drones, an area of particular expertise for FalconViz, previously inaccessible areas of Al-Balad can now be documented for more accurate preservation.

Historical buildings in Jeddah’s Al-Balad area, one of the UNESCO-listed heritage sites in Saudi Arabia. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Breathing new life into the old

Each drone sweep is an extensive aerial and terrestrial 3D scan of Al-Balad, and produces dozens of images of a building, along with hundreds of images that create a complex point cloud of data. Every point is able to accurately provide coordinates and true color markers to support all facets of the buildings, from its complex Hijazi facades to its structural nodes.

Unlike the common method of point cloud meshing — which can be inaccurate, overloads rendering and creates unnecessarily large files — FalconViz directly imports the point cloud into what is known as AutoCAD, enabling a detailed 3D model to be created that preserves even the minutest structural details.

“Autodesk tools like ReCap, Revit, and 3ds Max provide us with accurate drawings of sections, elevations, and structures of buildings,” Abdelgawad said. When combined with Building Information Modeling (BIM) tools and processes, it provides previously unavailable capabilities. “We can use these models to run various stress tests and simulations, like fire safety. We can plan for emergency response teams, evacuation routes and many other scenarios due to the high accuracy of the models,” he said. 

The team at FalconViz then makes use of the highly accurate point cloud data to take measurements and accurately extract a CAD solid model of the building. Since all measurements are accurate to 1cm, final as-built plans can be generated for any of the modeled buildings from the original Structure via Motion (SfM) scan.

“Thanks to drone technology and the capabilities of Autodesk software, we can now do in a day what it would take a number of teams at least a month to complete. This has a positive domino effect on costs, manpower and efficiency. It also gives the Saudi authorities in charge of restoring and maintaining the Al-Balad area a comprehensive model to refer to when necessary. For example, there was a fire that destroyed a few very old buildings some months ago. Without the accurate models we helped construct, these buildings would be lost forever. Now, they can still be restored,” Abdelgawad said.

 

Documenting the past to preserve future

FalconViz’s mission is to “digitally document the world.” They provide and use the latest drone technology to “assist, improve, and accelerate the process of documenting a city’s most valued cultural assets. 

“This project was one of our first, and one of the first in Saudi Arabia, and we are very proud to be a part of this renewed effort to carefully restore these cultural treasures that are an intangible part of human culture and history,” Abdelgawad said.

The benefit is twofold, as the same technology that is being used for preservation is used toward the development of modern urban infrastructure, planning, and construction. It is this diverse dual use of drone technology that is helping to preserve these ancient structures and restore them to their former glory.


Saudi crown prince signs raft of cooperation agreements with China

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman signs an agreement between the Kingdom and China in Beijing on Friday. (SPA)
Updated 23 February 2019
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Saudi crown prince signs raft of cooperation agreements with China

  • the crown prince headed the Saudi delegation at the third session of the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee

BEIJING: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Friday met with Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng to discuss ways of further developing relations between the Kingdom and China.

The meeting took place in the grand surroundings of the Great Hall of the People in the Chinese capital Beijing. After their talks, the crown prince headed the Saudi delegation at the third session of the China-Saudi Arabia High-Level Joint Committee which he co-chaired with Zheng.

Delegates at the meeting discussed moves to strengthen cooperation between the two countries on trade, investment, energy, culture and technology, as well as the coordination of political and security matters. The committee also reviewed plans for greater integration between China’s Belt and Road development strategy and the Saudi Vision 2030 reform program.

After agreeing on the minutes of the meeting, the Saudi royal and Zheng took part in the signing of a range of agreements, memorandums of understanding (MoU), investment projects and bilateral cooperation accords between the Kingdom and China:

The cooperation agreement in maritime transport between the Chinese and Saudi governments, signed by Saudi Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid Al-Qassabi and Chinese Minister of Transport Li Xiaopeng.

MoU between the Kingdom’s Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources and the National Development and Reform Commission in China, signed by Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih and Ning Jizhe, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission.

MoU between the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Investment to form a working group to facilitate trade, signed by Abdul Rahman Al-Harbi, the Kingdom’s deputy minister of commerce and investment, and Qian Keming, Chinese vice minister of commerce.

Loan agreement between the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD) and the Chinese Ministry of Finance to build and equip three hospitals in Yanbian city in Jilin Province, signed by Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir and the Chinese deputy finance minister.

Rehabilitation

Loan agreement between the SFD and Chinese Ministry of Finance to reconstruct and rehabilitate areas affected by earthquakes in Sichuan Province, signed by Al-Jubeir and the Chinese deputy finance minister.

Agreement between the Saudi Ministry of Interior and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to cooperate in fighting cybercrime, signed Nasser Al-Dawood, undersecretary of the Saudi Ministry of Interior, and China’s deputy minister for public security.

MoU between the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia and China’s National Committee for energy to invest in renewable energy, signed by PIF head Yasir Al-Rumayyan, and the committee’s vice chairman.

Minutes of the meeting about cooperating in combating terrorism between the Saudi Presidency of State Security and Chinese Ministry of Public Security, signed by Lt. Gen. Abdullah Al-Qarni, deputy director-general of General Investigation for the Kingdom, and the Chinese minister.

MoU between the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property and the Chinese National Committee for Intellectual Property Rights, signed by Dr. Abdul Aziz Al-Swailem, the authority’s executive chairman, and committee chairman Xin Xiangyu.

MoU to participate in investing in renewable energy projects, signed by the chairman of ACWA Power, Mohammed Abunayyan, and president of the Silk Road Fund, Wang Yanzhi.

Cooperation agreement for Saudi Aramco to acquire 9 percent of Chinese project Zhejiang Petrochemical, signed by Saudi Aramco CEO Amin Nasser and Xung Wi, mayor of Zhushan.

Agreement between Saudi Aramco with NORINCO Group and Panjin Sincen to develop a fully integrated refining and petrochemical complex, located in the city of Panjin in China’s Liaoning province, signed by Nasser and Tang Yijun, governor of Liaoning province and chairman of NORINCO.