Using Drones to Scan Rochester Castle and Rochester Cathedral in England

Ⓒ Clem Rutter, Rochester, Kent

On the east bank of River Medway, along England’s historical Watling Street, stands Rochester Castle directly across from Rochester Cathedral. Founded after the Norman Conquest around 1087-1089, the castle has seen its fair share of conflict from sieges and wars. The castle’s most prominent feature, the stone keep, is one of the best preserved 12th Century structures throughout England and France. However, the structure, built from Kentish Ragstone, is facing deterioration from aging and external forces like the weather. Today, Rochester Castle is owned by English Heritage, a charity responsible for the upkeep of more than 400 historical English landmarks, while the grounds are managed by local authority, Medway Council.

In 2020, English Heritage and Medway Council reached out to a local man to help with preservation efforts using modern technology, drones. Geoff Watkins started tinkering around with drones several years ago. Having what Geoff calls ” A mix of a love of photography and a love of toys,” he went out and purchased his first drone. He said that he quickly got the hang of how to fly the small drone and was amazed by the photographs and videos he was able to capture with it. Living in Medway, an area full of many historic sites, Geoff found it the perfect place to fly his drone and capture history from a different point of view.

Geoff spent about 5 years as a hobbyist drone pilot. “It’s always something I’ve enjoyed doing, I enjoy the photography,” Geoff said. “And, I thought recently, that I’d like to turn that into a business and actually start using my drone commercially.” The first step for Geoff was to become a Civil Aviation Authority approved drone pilot, the equivalent of an FAA Part 107 in the US. Before taking on any commercial clients, Geoff made sure to become fully insured as well. Since then, Geoff has purchased several drones and uses them for commercial photography and videography, inspections, PR marketing, and event coverage throughout South Eastern England.

One of Geoff’s largest clients has been English Heritage and Medway Council. “Having already done some aerial photography for the Cathedral,” Geoff said, “I was contacted to discuss whether it would be possible to use drones to help image some of these hard-to-reach areas. After some discussion, it appeared to be entirely plausible and safe to carry out, so a proof of concept flight was arranged to see how well the drone footage works with the 3D rendering software.” Geoff began scanning the castle’s keep with his drone, rendering those images into a 3D model. The images, Geoff explained, will be used to monitor any deterioration of the structure. With the 3D drone model, restoration crews can closely examine the keep as a whole and even zoom in on individual bricks to assess damages.

Geoff went on to say that this project will take many years to complete. With the initial drone documentation, English Heritage and Medway Council now have an up to date dataset on the condition of Rochester Castle and Cathedral. These images will be invaluable to maintenance and restoration crews. Subsequent drone scans will be needed to be compared with Geoff’s original 3D model. Senior Properties Curator for English Heritage, Roy Porter, was thrilled with Geoff’s drone imaging. “It is really, really beneficial,” Roy said. “It is exciting and the sort of thing that people would not have dreamt of in the Middle Ages.”

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