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St. Louis Cathedral Uses Drones for Building Inspections

A drone company is wrapping up a contract to inspect all the churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, which has so far seen a crew of operators look at 46 churches over the past three years.

St. Louis
(TNS) — The sanctuary of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis was quiet last Tuesday morning except for the faint whir of a small drone flying about the large worship hall. The drone's operator stood at the altar taking photos of the 90-foot ceilings and along the catwalk with his airborne robot.

"We'll get way up high and look down, and it's a vantage point that no one's ever seen before," said Andy Pyatt, who pilots drones for Kuhn Construction Co.

The company is wrapping up a contract to inspect all the churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. Rick Kuhn, a fifth-generation owner of his family's construction company, and his crew have looked at 46 churches over the past three years. They've traveled as far as Columbia, Hannibal and Poplar Bluff for the project and still have three more churches to inspect. They aim to finish this fall.

When Deon Johnson was elected as bishop of the diocese in 2019, one of his first orders of business was to assess every parish. The last inspection on this scale happened in the late 1970s, he said.

"When I got here, one of the things I recognized, not just here but around the country, is the biggest issue that congregations face is the building — maintenance on the building, fixing things in the building," Bishop Johnson said. "This is a way for us to be proactive. Congregations are able to do lots of preventative things. They can fix a leak in the roof instead of waiting for the roof to fall in."

Kuhn's company is known for renovating old spaces, particularly churches, and he and his family have long been active at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Webster Groves.

"I think they go in very cognizant of the job that's been handed to them and treat it with respect and care that it deserves," Jodie Allen, Kuhn's daughter, said. "I'm not sure many construction companies would understand that, but because they've been in the Episcopal church and in the diocese and have been involved for so long, they feel that deeply. I think it's cool that he has a piece in helping save some of the history."

Kuhn bought a drone after the diocese hired his company and said the technology is now a permanent part of Kuhn Construction Co. operations.

"I knew there's no way to see what you can see from that," Kuhn said. "(I got it) to be responsible to the report, do the best you can, surround yourself with excellence, and that's one thing that's easy to do."

Kuhn's isn't the only construction company investing in unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. The global construction drone market was valued at $5.3 billion last year and is expected to grow annually by 15% over the next five years, according to IMARC Group, a research company. More than just inspecting, drones are used at construction sites for surveying, mapping, project tracking, surveillance and safety purposes.

Kuhn, Pyatt and two others were at Christ Church Cathedral last Tuesday to wrap up inspections. The cathedral is the largest and most important building in the diocese and a designated national historic landmark. They flew the drone in the sanctuary and above the building to view the whole exterior of the building, including its multiple roofs.

Pyatt said they pushed the cathedral toward the end of their list of churches so the team would have a good routine and process down by the time they got there.

"We're looking for the broken, the missing," Khun said.

On the fourth-floor rooftop, Kuhn and his crew looked around for signs of deterioration and wear. Pyatt flew the drone around the top of the building, focusing on taking photos of angles and hard-to-reach areas, such as the top of the gothic bell tower.

"It's safer than putting someone on a roof and more cost effective than taking a scissor lift," Pyatt said.

Pyatt's drone photos and descriptions will be included in the final report and recommendations from Kuhn Construction Co. Each church receives a copy of the report, and congregations are then able to make plans on what to address.

Bishop Johnson said there have been many surprises throughout the inspections. They found that one church had to be condemned, as the structural beams were too weak to provide proper support. Another building was discovered to have an electrical system from the 1950s, prompting a complete replacement.

A few years ago, Kuhn gave Johnson a drone. He takes it on visits to show congregations what their churches look like from high above.

"I call them 'angel-eye photos,'" Johnson said. "They see pictures of their church they may have never seen before."

© 2023 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.