Drone aids architects preserving historic Camden tavern

 Historic Preservation Architects use drones equipped with cameras to safely view the damaged and hard to reach places of buildings during assessment. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Historic Preservation Architects use drones equipped with cameras to safely view the damaged and hard to reach places of buildings during assessment. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A tree has grown up through the middle of the Benjamin Cooper House in Camden. Light brown tarps cover portions of the collapsed roof of the 18th century tavern on the Delaware waterfront.

Bricks have fallen from the top of the walls, and the windows are all covered in plywood. A family of raccoons has taken up residence inside.

 One of the oldest buildings left standing in Camden is set to get some much-needed rehabilitation this summer, with the help of a very modern technique.

In the past, historic preservationists at the site would be surveying the ruin from the boom of a cherry picker, but now, they’re seeing it all through the eyes of a 3-pound drone named Howie.

Howie flies suspended from four whirring propellers. It relays video to the ground, which Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner says is of such good quality, she can see details as small as a nail. But the head of Historic Building Architects is not at the controls.

“I crashed it the first day we had it, so nobody is allowing me to fly it anymore,” she said. “I don’t fly. They fly. I just watch and check the videos afterwards.”

Howie is helping her team figure out how to do what’s called “mothballing” or stabilizing the building in its current state of decay.

Kathleen Cullen of the Cooper’s Ferry Partnership says the nonprofit had raised the money to put on a replacement roof.

“The point of the project would be, right now, to stop water from entering the building and causing further deterioration,” she said.

The building withstood British occupation and cannonball practice during the Revolutionary War, then later became the office of a ship building company. It caught fire on Thanksgiving in 2012.

Cullen, who hopes some day the building can be fully rehabilitated, said the drone inspection is just a fraction of that long-range project. However, using a drone rather than renting a cherry-picker does save several thousand dollars.

While the preservation architects hope they can eventually program in GPS coordinates and let Howie circle historic buildings on its own, Sophia Jones was directing its flight manually during a recent round of reconnaissance.

The drone circling the ruins of the building’s roof may sound like science fiction, but Jones said people who preserve old structures already use a lot of advanced technology.

“We work with other consultants who use very modern technology like ground-penetrating radar and thermography to figure out where water is coming into buildings,” she said.

Until Howie learns to fly on its own, Jones will keep her job at the controls. She says the sensation is like flying a toy, except that she gets to do it “on the clock.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mis-stated the name of Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner’s firm.

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