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Bridge Inspection Drones Fly High

Monday, December 14, 2015

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As drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), begin to find their way into construction work sites, more and more contractors and state departments of transportation are turning to the systems to aid in project activities.

Most recently, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (CTDOT) recently announced it will test the UAV’s role in performing visual inspection tasks during an assessment of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in southeastern Connecticut.

George Clark
© / George Clark

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are coming into use more and more by state transportation departments to aid in bridge inspection activities.

“This is an important step for our agency—the testing of a new technology with the potential to improve results, efficiencies, and safety for the public,” said Commissioner James P. Redeker.

Inspection by UAV

CTDOT plans to put the drone to work on Dec. 15 in order to perform limited visual bridge inspection tasks on the pair of steel truss bridges that make up the Gold Star.

At roughly 1 mile each, the structures are the longest bridges in the state, with the main spans rising approximately 100 feet over the Thames River. The spans carry Interstate 95 and U.S. Route 1 across the Thames River between New London and Groton, CT.

A full routine inspection of the Gold Star was completed in October by CTDOT using lifts, snooper-trucks, and ropes and climbers. However, CTDOT will use the December inspection date to test the UAV’s ability to provide access to and photograph areas of the northbound bridge that can be hard to reach by those traditional means.

Upon completion of the UAV test inspection activities, CTDOT will analyze the results and determine the advantages and disadvantages of drone use in this capacity, including its effectiveness at gathering detailed information in comparison to previous conventional inspections.

The outcome of the review will help determine the potential for UAV bridge inspection technologies to improve upon or supplement existing bridge inspection processes on select structures throughout the state.

CTDOT indicated the use of a drone in this application fulfills its ongoing mission to improve and evaluate its operations and to assess the usefulness and functionality of new technologies.

“The willingness to examine new technologies—to innovate and to keep an open mind—is critical if we are to find better ways of doing business, and I applaud the Department’s Bridge Safety Division for initiating this test.”

Research Focus

University research programs are helping to develop drones to be used with these kinds of industrial inspection capacities in mind.

Kansas State University’s Salina campus has an Unmanned Aircraft Systems program that tests the boundaries of drone use, according to KMUW in Wichita.

istock/Charles Schug
© / Charles Schug

Researchers see the potential of using drones to boost safety on work sites by eliminating the dangers inherent in putting inspectors on a tall bridge or wind tower.

"There are really good applications for this," Kurt Carraway, the flight operations manager for the program, told the station. "There is a lot of industrial inspection research that we've been involved in, such as looking at blades on a windmill, or doing bridge inspections.

“Things where you need to precisely maneuver around,” he added, noting the potential dangers of putting inspectors up on a windmill or a tall bridge. By using drones, however, companies can eliminate that risk and its cost, while still doing their job, he said.

Florida Atlantic University puts their bridge instruction drones to use from another perspective. Researchers there are 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.

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

"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 said. If the vehicle detected a problem, only then would a diver be sent out to investigate the issue.

Minnesota’s State Program

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is also studying the use of drones for inspection purposes. In November, Jennifer Zink, an MnDOT bridge inspection engineer, spoke to the media about the agency’s research, reported.

Zink emphasizes drones are unlikely to replace inspectors but will only enhance the inspection process.  

Drones are not expected to maneuver between trusses or in other confined spaces, for instance. Additionally, the Federal Highway Administration requires that inspectors get within arm's reach of any steel that is considered "fracture critical" and could contribute to a catastrophic bridge failure.

In terms of benefits, besides the safety and maneuverability advantages mentioned earlier, Zink said drones could lead to reducing the amount of time inspections take, resulting in fewer road and lane closures, eliminating safety risks associated with closures and bringing added cost savings, including saving wear and tear on MnDOT's snooper trucks.

From the MnDOT testing performed to date, when drone photographs are set against the current standard for bridge inspection reports, the drone photographs compare favorably, Zink said.

Promising results like these have led Zink to estimate that drones will become a part of bridge inspections in the state in late 2016.

The only potential obstacle for the program could come from Federal Aviation Administrations restrictions and regulations, Zink said.



Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Bridge Piles; Bridges; drone; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Health and safety; Inspection; Latin America; North America; Quality Control; Wind Farm; Wind Towers

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