Trucks at Work

Drones: Now inspecting bridges and roadways near you

Unmanned aerial vehicles – known more commonly as “drones” or simply “UAVs” – are increasingly being deployed by state departments of transportation (DOT) across the U.S. for a variety of reasons, in the main aiding in highway bridge inspections and help speeding up clearance of roadway crashes.

But what other purposes might drones be put to in the transportation arena? Aerial commercial vehicle tracking for safety inspection purposes, perhaps?

One thing’s for certain: the use of drones by State DOTs is only poised to grow.

According to a March 2016 survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), some 33 state departments of transportation are exploring, researching, and/or testing drones in some shape or fashion.

On top of that, this spring, the Michigan State Department of Transportation (MDOT) is set to begin a two-year study of drones – the follow-on phase of an 18-month UAV study completed by MDOT and the Michigan Tech Research Institute back in 2014.

“Our first study looked at the viability (of UAV’s) and what we found out is that the unmanned aerial vehicle provided a mechanism to keep our workers out of harm’s way,” MDOT Engineer of Operations and Maintenance Steven Cook.

“A traditional bridge inspection for example typically involves setting up work zones, detouring traffic and using heavy equipment,” he noted. “UAVs can get in and get out quickly, capturing data in near real-time and causing less distraction and inconvenience to drivers.”

MDOT currently estimates that a standard bridge deck inspection takes eight hours, a crew of four people and heavy equipment – costing at an estimated $4,600.

The same inspection with a drone, however, requires just two people and two hours to complete at an estimated cost of $250, Cook pointed out.

Other states are experimenting with drones, too.

Minnesota’s DOT, for example, tested a single drone via its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Bridge Inspection Demonstration Project, conducting safety inspections at four bridges located across the state.

And in 2015 the University of Vermont, working in conjunction with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, used a U.S. DOT grant to study the use of drones to monitor rivers to prevent flooding and damage to roadways.

It’s worth noting that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is planning to issue new regulations for commercial drone testing and usage, and hopes they’ll be ready by July this year.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if you encounter drones buzzing around highways and bridges, for it’s an “eye in the sky” state DOTs are finding extremely useful (sans the Alan Parsons Project music of course).

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