Blessed are the pilots: France’s villages turn to drones to steam clean churches

France villages drones churches

Some stories provide great examples of “drones for good” activity. This one might be described more as “drones for God.” A small village in the southwest of France this week deployed a drone to clean the façade, roof, and bell tower of its church in a mission usually carried out by scaffolding-perched workers. The time and costs saved in that were nothing short of miraculous.

Drones flying heavenly missions in France’s villages for churches

For more than a century, France has become an increasingly urbanized society, as people flowed from towns and farmlands toward cities offering greater (and higher paying) employment opportunities. One consequence of that shift has been a deepening nostalgia and affection for the France profonde that was left behind: the small towns and rural villages dear to the French heart, and often visited during summer vacations. The bourg of Pouillon (pop. 3081) is one such village, and it’s now ready to welcome visitors with what many in France consider most iconic of its pastoral images: a small but tidy local church – this one cleaned by a drone.

This week, Pouillon mayor Patrick Vilhem broke with the tradition of manually steam cleaning the local house of worship, opting instead to let modern tech do the job. On Tuesday, local drone service provider Drones Ingénierie Systèmes deployed one of its DJI drones to cleanse the façade, roof, and bell tower. The Matrice 600 used is tethered to a high-pressure hose blasting cleaning and anti-moss fluids at altitudes of nearly 50 meters. Its aerial approach allows the pilot to efficiently reach areas workers have a tough time getting to, including the 47-meter spire housing Pouillon’s church bell.

The move marked Vilhem’s further innovation away from traditionally heavy, scaffolding-based operations that he embarked on last time the church was cleaned five years ago. At that time, he turned to teams of rope-dangling climbers to clean dirt and moss from the structure. The next move was to drones.

“The drone performed the work in half the time and at half the cost – and at less than 30% the price of methods using scaffolding,” Vilhem says, adding the craft also spared the old, traditionally crafted roof tiles that often break under human trodding. “It’s all clean, the moss is blasted off the tiles, and all we need now is a good rain to wash it all down.”

Ascending demand for church flying drones

Patrice Le Foll, founder and operator of Drones Ingénierie Systèmes, says business is getting stronger from France’s other villages looking to clean their churches with drones. He now has about 10 of those operations under way. Vilhem says he understands the economics behind that rising demand. 

Despite its strict secular laws separating religious and public life, many of France’s 35,000 churches – most in smaller towns and villages – are regarded part of the country’s cultural and historical patrimony. That’s particularly true for churches owned by municipalities before France’s 1905 secularity law was passed, like Pouillon’s 1850-built edifice. That classification leaves responsibility for their upkeep with local governments already strapped for cash without those recurring outlays to boot. The economies realized by the drone, Vilhem says, were therefore welcome indeed.

That’s not to say absolutely everything was perfect, however. For starters, temperatures in Pouillon rose to well over 104 degrees Fahrenheit this week, which reduced drone battery life to just 12 minutes per charge.

“But they still got it done in a day and a half, and we’re satisfied with the results and cost,” Vilhem says.

Big city visitors to Pouillon and France’s other villages with drone-scrubbed churches will spare a prayer of thanks to the pilots.

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