The Beacon — The Beacon March 31 2016
Change Language:
A Diocesan First
Michael Wojcik

Drone eyes exterior of Paterson church as part of inspection for needed repairs

PATERSON What’s that flying object gliding through the air between the tops of the two tall towers of Our Lady of Lourdes (OLL) Church here? Is it a bat from the belfry? A bird? A tiny plane?

Curious pedestrians stopped on a nearby sidewalk and looked up, while apartment dwellers across the street surveyed the scene from their porches on the morning of March 23. It took them a few minutes to identify the flying object as a drone — an unmanned aerial vehicle set aloft by four propellers. The drone, which looks like a small robot, snapped hundreds of photographs with its camera of physical damage at the top and sides of the majestic city church. It marked the first step in the Paterson Diocese’s efforts to make essential repairs to its well-worn brick exterior.

“It’s great to see everything up there in the high spaces of the church in the photos,” said Scott Lurie, the architect the Diocese hired for the renovation project, as he looked at the pictures taken by Parker Gyokeres, the drone pilot and owner of the aerial drone photography company, Propeller heads. “We originally were going to look at the damage by putting up scaffolding around the church, which would have been costly and time-consuming and by bringing in a bucket lift, which would have been a great liability. This [the drone flight] saves time, money and liability,” he said.

Welcome to a new frontier for the diocesan Facilities Department: its first exterior building inspection by drone. The sevenpound, black-and-white Inspire 1 drone took more than 400 photos of deteriorating conditions of the sides and roof of OLL, as well as the rectory and the school — the result of years of deferred maintenance. For the first of several flights, the drone, which is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, lifted off from parish parking lot as Gyokeres operated two joysticks on a small device that he held in his hands.

Like a graceful bird, the drone — with its green flashing lights and gentle whirl of its propellers — buzzed around each side of the church, which was built in 1928. Its camera captured large context photos and then follow-up shots that showed close-up detail of the exterior. Gyokeres piloted the drone by looking into a small screen mounted on the hand-held device. Often, the flying machine buzzed by one of the church’s sides and then idled in mid-air to take some detail shots.

“Parker, can you pick up the damage to the copper there? Can you get pictures of the intersecting corner here?” Lurie asked Gyokeres, while the drone flew between sections that connect the tower with the roof. Routinely, Gyokeres consulted with Lurie on which photos he needed to take.

After the unmanned aerial vehicle touched down for the first time, Gyokeres called over Lurie, Ben Dubbels, diocesan facilities project coordinator; and Father Benjamin William’s OLL’s pastor, to view the photos on his hand-held device. The drone made four flights around the church — one to cover each side — and took dramatic photos of physical damage.

The pictures revealed broken windows, cracks in the exterior of the building, a loose snow railing on the roof, grime between the bricks and evidence of water entering the church, among many of the preliminary findings. “Lurie will utilize these photos and other evidence to compile a report that prioritizes the work. Then, the Diocese will request bids for the project, which should begin sometime this year,” Dubbels said.

“This is aerial reconnaissance on a personal level. These pictures may not be glamorous, but they are very informative to my clients,” said Gyokeres, a retired U.S. Air Force photojournalist and former chief of public affairs, who has designed and built both multi-prop and fixed-wing aircraft.

After each flight at OLL, Gyokeres changed the battery in the drone, each one lasting about 20 minutes. Before liftoff, the safety-conscious pilot informed anyone in the immediate vicinity about potential hazards, such as the possibility of the drone’s GRS system failing or difficulty maintaining height or the presence of low-hanging wires and trees, construction debris, vehicles and curious onlookers. The drone also navigated strong winds that blew it several feet while in the air. “The Diocese previously postponed the flight from another scheduled day because of wind and rain,” Dubbels said.

It was Dubbels who suggested using a drone for the inspection of OLL during a meeting with Father Williams and members of the diocesan leadership team — a trend that has been generating considerable “buzz” in his industry. It costs $2,500 — far less than the roughly $30,000 for scaffolding. “The Facilities Department plans to correct only the most serious damage, not cosmetics. They include water leaks and damage to the brickwork and stonework that might compromise safety,” said Dennis Rodano, diocesan Business and Facilities project manager.

“This [drone flight] gives the architect a bird’s eye view of the project. It is also a cost savings,” Rodano said. “This is a test to see if it works. If it does, we might do this with other parishes in the future,” he said.

Father Williams said he enjoyed watching the drone land in the parking lot. Having served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, the priest recalled watching much larger drones in the military lift off with even heavier payloads.

“I love the technology, but there is so much work to be done, because of deferred maintenance, and this is a poor parish. The bottom line is whatever it takes to get the job done,” Father Williams said.