UK drone pilot creates precise 3D model of Rochester Castle

drone model castle

Professional UAV pilot Geoff Watkins has accomplished something beyond merely transforming his passion for droning into a gainful career. His recent work at the controls has produced a tool that will be passed down through history: a precise, drone-generated digital model of a 1,000-year-old Norman castle. 

Watkins is the owner of Aerial Imaging South East, a drone services company operating around his home in the county of Kent, wedged between the Channel and London area. The certified pilot founded the business in 2019 as a way of transitioning away from his job as a driving instructor toward his enthusiasm for UAV activity. He’s made that work with missions spanning roofing and other structural inspections, and capturing imagery for naval clients and administrations overseeing historical sites. 

Now he’s taken that last activity a step farther by deploying his drone to create a complete 3D digital model of the 11th century Rochester castle.

The project was undertaken under the aegis of the English Heritage charity that manages hundreds of historic monuments, buildings, and sites, as well as the local Medway Council. The objective was to use images shot by his drone to create a precise and accurate model of the ancient structure to facilitate analysis of its condition and provide data to shape decisions about maintenance and repair.

In addition to its use for near and medium-range care of the structure, Watkins’ digital clone will be kept for consultation in coming decades and centuries as a far more accurate point of reference for future generations compared to photos, or even illustrations, that have served as visual comparisons up to now.

Deployment of the drone in the modeling project provided obvious and immediate advantages over traditional manual inspections. The castle is 113 feet high, with large swathes of its facades difficult for humans to access. Watkins’ drone not only got up close and personal with the stone facing and window openings, but also captured over 1,000 detailed images that went into creating the model – some shot from within the structure.

Watkins flew a Parrot Anafi in the project as a quiet, compact option that also offered powerful camera capabilities. (His stable of drones also includes a DJI Air 2S and Autel Evo 2 Pro 6K craft).

He tells DroneDJ that capturing images for the model “took the best part of a day to conduct, using a number of batteries and a portable battery power station to recharge.” He says a total of eight flights were “necessary to fully capture the exterior of the keep,” with data then processed by Pix4D cloud software. 

That use of drone tech – and Watkins’ enviable piloting skills – also allowed for savings in time and inspection outlays. Previously, human inspectors had to climb up and around the castle, find places needing repair, then clamber back down to organize renovation before returning with the necessary gear to execute the work. In some cases, the mounting of scaffolding was necessary for that. With Watkins piloting his UAV, the surveying and analysis aspect was completed by a single person from the ground.

Watkins’ drone inspection work is making him something of an expert of local historical sites. Last year he flew proof-of-concept missions with the objective of creating a model of the nearby 11th  century Rochester Cathedral – the second-oldest in England. His aerial image recording of that much larger, complex, and ornate edifice is still underway.

Other projects he’s piloted include recording parts of a large-scale and award-winning refurbishment effort by the Rochester Bridge Trust, and drone footage of the Chatham Historic Dockyard that has been aired in television programs and will be featured in an upcoming ad campaign.

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