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Drone's-Eye View for Bridge Inspection

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

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A research team at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) is working to develop unmanned surface vehicles aimed at making bridge inspections safer and more efficient.

Working with a $187,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the team at FAU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science is looking at the ways autonomous waterborne vehicles can play a role in looking for the cracks, corrosion, erosion and other defects that occur in bridge structures at the water’s surface.

Currently, FDOT uses divers to inspect and test the state’s 11,450 bridges at least once every two years.

© / RASimon

FAU is looking at how autonomous waterborne vehicles can play a role in looking for the cracks, corrosion, erosion and other defects that occur in bridge structures.

"The inspection of bridge pilings at the waterline and underwater can be difficult," said principal investigator and FAU professor Karl von Ellenrieder in ECN.

"Fast flowing tidal currents, waves, strong coastal winds, and the presence of wildlife are common environmental factors that can make water-based bridge inspections difficult and sometimes dangerous for personnel," he added.

Not intended to replace the diver’s role, the drones would come into play early in the inspection process, von Ellenrider explained to Government Technology.

“The way I view it is you would take a vehicle like this and it would allow you to more rapidly scan bridges,” he said, “and then when you detect a problem, send out a diver to verify the problem [through testing].”

Designing the Water Craft

von Ellenrieder said his team is currently two months into the 12-month project. He explained that they have modified an existing watercraft of their own design with a new propulsion system that enables the vehicle to maintain its position and heading during a bridge scan.

The automatic control system uses GPS and a compass to drive the drone toward programmed waypoints.

The next phase of research, targeted for September, will be to equip the craft with an acoustic scanning system similar to lidar that will enable investigators to access 3-D models of the parts of the bridge that are underwater.

With the acoustic scanner in operation, the researchers will go out into the field to test the water drone’s efficacy on three bridges recommended by FDOT because of the variety of different bridge environments they offer for testing.

© / Tinik

Tidal currents, waves, coastal winds, and wildlife are common environmental factors that can make water-based bridge inspections difficult and even dangerous for personnel, according to von Ellenrieder.

von Ellenrieder told Government Technology that this stage of research is a preliminary phase only and that they are considering the range of technologies available and how they can be implemented in a larger scale.

“The research is intended also to be a proof of concept,” he said. “Once this research is done, it will be clearer what type of imagery is possible, and that information can lead to a more detailed study that will precipitate future advances in autonomous vehicle technology.”

The Promise of Water Drones

As ECN reported, unmanned surface vehicles are able to operate on their own without human involvement for a set time period, unlike manned vehicles, which require constant contact with and input from a human operator.

"In recent years, USVs have been increasingly used in many applications including ocean sampling, maritime search and rescue, hydrologic surveys, harbor surveillance and defense," said von Ellenrieder.

"The main goal of our project for the Florida Department of Transportation is to develop the capability for USV-based bridge inspections," he added.

Among the advances that are most promising for bridge inspection, ECN noted automatic path planning, in which new trajectories can be updated in real-time based on mission goals and vehicle state, and active mapping, in which the vehicle can be used to automatically build and update a map of its operational environment.

As their work continues, von Ellenrieder and his team will provide FDOT with additional opportunities for use in bridge inspections.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Bridge Piles; Bridges; Corrosion; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Inspection; Latin America; North America; Quality Control; Research and development

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