Case Studies

Reconstructing Dinosaur Fossils Using the FARO Laser Scanner

Reconstructing Dinosaur Fossils Using the FARO Laser Scanner

Paleontologists from the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History are working towards reconstructing the anatomy of missing bones of a juvenile Apatosaurus. With approximately only 15% of the bones collected, scientists look to digitally reconstruct the rest of the bone structure using the model of the adult Apatosaurus currently on display in the Museum. Reverse engineering the large skeleton would be the best solution.


The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is home to one of most extensive paleontology collections of prehistoric specimens. Much of the scientific research for the museum is conducted by the Center for Shape Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing (SEAM). SEAM is a multi-university collaboration that has pooled together engineering resources to focus on creating and disseminating innovation. As one of SEAM’s members, the University of Oklahoma has been recently working with the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in a very unique application.

The paleontologists of the museum were tasked to reconstruct the anatomy of a juvenile Apatosaurus. Since only 15% of the bones had been collected, the remaining fossils would have to be anatomically created by the team of scientists. Traditionally, sculpting clay models by hand has always been common practice. However, using this process is extremely time consuming, often inaccurate and highly irreproducible.

As part of SEAM the University of Oklahoma assisted the museum’s paleontologists by providing an alternative solution. The university’s objective was to provide individual prototypes of each individual bone of the juvenile Apatosaurus for the paleontologists to create castings for the display model. The team decided to reverse engineer the current adult Apatosaurus skeletal model so they could proportionally create the missing bones of the juvenile dinosaur.


With the adult Apatosaurus skeleton standing at 25FT. tall and 45FT. long, digitally creating nearly 300 bones would have been an enormous challenge for traditional methods such as sculpting. Dr. Binil Starly and his team of students at the University of Oklahoma decided to use laser scanning as a way of capturing the data from the adult display model. In order to accomplish this, The FARO Laser Scanner Photon was used to create a virtual 3D representation of the adult Apatosaurus to then be modified to the acceptable anatomic size for the reconstructing of the juvenile cast models.

“Laser scanning serves as an enabling digital technology for the accurate anatomic representation of prehistoric life on earth,” stated Dr. Starly.

Certain portions of the adult skeletal display were either hidden, in tight locations or too hard to reach. Despite the space constraints, the FARO Laser Scanner Photon was able to fully scan the bones that normally would have been impossible to access. The ease of use and transportability of the FARO Photon aided the team of students in scanning the entire adult Apatosaurus in just a few scans.

“As an industrial engineering student, I have been taught to always try to seek more effective and efficient methods for getting a job done. The FARO Laser Scanner Photon has really shown me what a key role new technology plays in doing this,” said student Aimee Dilley.

Students assisting on the project were quickly trained within a few hours using the FARO Photon and each took turns operating the laser scanner. The FARO Photon sends out an infrared laser beam to the object that is being scanned and is reflected back to the laser scanner. The laser scanner collects nearly a million points per second and from these points it creates a virtual point cloud. Using these point clouds, digital 3D models can be created, scaled and edited to the correct dimensions needed.

Since fossils are so delicate, implementing laser scanning proved to be invaluable to the museum. While working with objects such as fossils, the FARO Laser Scanner was ideal since it was nonintrusive to the fragile Apatosaurus display and it allowed the dinosaur exhibit to remain open during scanning.

Return on Investment

Laser scanning of the adult Apatosaurus display consisted of only 9 scans. Once completed, virtual models of the adult skeleton were then modified to anatomically match what would be the remaining skeleton of the juvenile Apatosaurus. Engineers from the University of Oklahoma and paleontologists from the Sam Noble Museum worked closely together to ensure the data was quantified accurately so that the correct proportioned cast molds could be printed using a 3D printer. FARO Scene, the laser scanning post processing software, automatically registered all 9 scans and allowed the engineers to conduct simple measurements.

According to Kyle Davies, one of Sam Noble’s paleontologists, applying the traditional method of reconstructing a tail bone vertebra took about a day to sculpt. Using the new methods of laser scanning, the same vertebra only takes 15-30 minutes to generate. Thus there is about 93-96% savings on time for each vertebra. The greatest benefit and savings come from the ability to mirror the large bones from the left to the right side of the skeleton.

Many of the people who worked on reconstruction in the past have been volunteers. For this project once the bones were reversed engineered, less experienced volunteers were able to reconstruct the cast fossils in less time. This saved the museum both time and money.

One engineer, Jacob Ferguson stated, “By using the FARO Laser Scanner Photon, we were able to comprehensively execute our project in an efficient manner.”

The paleontologists were very impressed with the FARO technology. For future projects they are eager to see how reverse engineering technology using the FARO Laser Scanner Photon can be used for other applications in their field.


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