Digital Preservation of Lithuania's Windmills

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Mystery of windmills

Once upon a time, the wide wings of windmills decorated and dominated the landscape. Standing away from the settlements, they looked lonely but powerful, welcoming the wind with all their might. Windmills are not only architectural but also technical monuments. Once there were about 1,000 windmills in Lithuania. As technology changes, the era of windmills ends, and they begin to decline, nature’s forces rapidly catching up with them. A little over 100 windmills have survived up to today in Lithuania and only a few of them are in a good condition. Recently, I have completed photogrammetry scans of an entire cultural heritage layer of my country: each still-standing windmill of Lithuania. Since, for most of these windmills, the final countdown started a long time ago I hope at least in this way we may try to freeze them in time.

Once upon a time…

Since 2014 when the first UAV (“drone”) fell into my arms, I have looked for all possible applications for it—things beyond just flying, and shooting nice photos and videos. Once I was asked by a famous Lithuanian artist and architect to do a strange thing: shoot many aerial photos of a historical hill fort from different angles. They wanted to render a 3D model and digitally reconstruct a castle from the Middle Ages. It was hard to understand what they really wanted from me until I saw their photogrammetry software and how it worked. It entranced me and I started, step-by-step, getting deeper into the photogrammetry world. Today I’m an independent photogrammetry & immersive media creator.

Windmills of Lithuania

It was the end of the summer of 2020. I was driving back home with only 60% of the last battery of my drone and suddenly saw in the distance something that forced me to say: “Wow!”. It was Čižiškių (Varlynės) Windmill lit by the setting sun.

It looked even better in 3D than in reality. After I posted the model to Sketchfab, Thomas Flynn included this model in his Weekly Cultural Heritage & History Top 10 collection. “Hmmm… It looks interesting not only for me!” I told myself. It inspired me to find a database of all the old windmills of my country. The following weekend, I had some spare time and decided to select a small sample of the windmills, a kind of pilot project. Maybe it would be possible to find some funding for a cultural heritage preservation project or something later. I started with the ones that “looked the best”. Best for an artist, that is. By that I mean, in the worst condition and worst looking if I were someone from heritage preservation. But after several days in the field, I saw how bad the condition of these windmills was in most cases. I realized that many of them could collapse at any time and felt responsible to not delay the project.  It took me nearly 3 months to collect most of the data. Just a few places had to be captured at a different time of the year.

Windmills of Lithuania by Saulius.Zaura on Sketchfab

Unfortunately, my instinct was right. At least one of these windmills (Pakapinė (Lukštai) windmill) collapsed the following winter. And it led me to one of my most interesting experiments and scanning results:

I call it a 4D model with the 4th dimension being time

This model surprised me a lot because it was made without any model manipulations. I just got the idea to try to merge both sets of photos in RealityCapture and see what would happen. The program managed to perfectly align the photo sets into one “before and after” model.

Several other 3D models of windmills:

The use cases for 3D captures

Creating a digital gallery and digital preservation is just a beginning. It allows us to create museums and touristic and educational experiences that were previously unimaginable. In the case of windmills, physically they’re spread across the country in some of the most remote and hard to reach places. Most of them are in a dangerous condition and are unsafe to visit. In digital space, however, it is possible to see and explore all the images, stories,, and the beauty of these structures.  Therefore I created several integrations and use cases just as samples for future development:

The map

The virtual tour with Sketchfab 3D model integration

Virtual Tour

The holoprojection

Augmented reality

Virtual reality

This is how the windmill gallery in Sketchfab looks on the Oculus Quest 2.

Windmill Oculus Quest 3

3D print


It is not enough just to create 3D content—without a space for sharing that content, it is useless. This is part of why I have found Sketchfab to be a great platform to share and integrate 3D content into other digital solutions.

The setup

All except the project’s final few models were captured with a Phantom 4 Pro drone—even ground-level data.  This is proof that you don’t need the latest gear to start doing.

Of course, you must work to constantly develop your skills and the quality of your work. Therefore, my setup has been “a bit” upgraded recently:

Aerial: M300 RTK with P1 camera, Mavic 3, Phantom 4 Pro, 10 m. pole for interiors and areas that are restricted or too narrow for drones.

Cameras: Sony 7C, Sony A1, Matterport Pro2, Theta Z1 for 360 virtual tour projects.

Lenses: Sony FE 2.8 16-35 mm GM, Sony FE 4/16 – 35, Sigma 24-70 mm 2.8 DN, Sony FE 1.8 / 135 GM.

Peripherals: Tripods, ring flash, lights, turntables, etc.

Software (for photogrammetry): RealityCapture. Adobe Lightroom, IrfanView 64.

Dreams: Laser scanner, 11K 360 camera and a much more powerful PC with the latest GPU!

Past. Present. Future.

There are now over 400 models in my Sketchfab gallery. The Windmills of Lithuania project did a great job for me personally in taking my skills and workflow development to the next level.

My portfolio includes churches, manors, sculptures, hill forts, castles, factories, old towns, nature, art, even a live(!) turtle and iguana  😊, which have been created out of curiosity or for my clients. I have already opened a “Windmills of Latvia” gallery and I hope to find enough time to finish it within a year. In fact, I have collected coordinates for most of the windmills in the world…hmmmm…why not?!  I’m always looking for opportunities to collaborate with museums, art galleries, digital preservation and virtualization platforms, cinema and game creators for new horizons and projects.

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About the author

Saulius Zaura

Saulius Zaura is an independent photogrammetry & integrated immersive media creator focused on the use of 21st century technologies to preserve our history and art & make it ready for the Metaverse and digital community.


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