Picturing Future of HD Drone Inspection

FRIDAY, MARCH 13, 2015

What if major bridges, highways, dams, power plants and other critical structures could be safely, minutely inspected in the minutes following a natural disaster?

High-resolution images and data from such inspections could save countless lives, help triage search-and-rescue efforts, and inform life-or-death repair and resource decisions.

That is the vision of a multi-year, federally funded project now underway by researchers from the University of New Mexico, San Diego State University, and British aerospace giant BAE Systems.

Mapping in Minutes

“I like to call it telemedicine for infrastructure,” said Christopher Lippitt,  a UNM assistant professor who is conducting the research with UNM colleague Susan Bogus Halter.

Lippitt's specialties include remote sensing and geographic information science; Halter is a Professional Engineer with a doctorate in civil engineering.

Says Lippitt: “We’re talking about being able to map every piece of critical infrastructure in minutes to hours, as opposed to hours to days."

Fine-Scale Images

WIth the help of a two-year, $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing and Spatial Information (CRS&SI) Technologies Program, the team is developing an operational prototype that will use "innovative remote sensing approaches and cameras mounted on low-cost aircraft or unmanned drones to detect and map fine-scale transportation infrastructure damage such as cracks, deformations and shifts."

FEMA / Josh deBerge

It took a week before local, state and federal inspection officials could perform even a preliminary assessment of damage following the July 2010 breach of Iowa's Lake Delhi Dam.

In addition to routine monitoring, researchers say, such technology could be immediately deployed after an earthquake, flood, hurricane or other natural disaster to inform critical decisions.

Timeliness is the key to infrastructure damage assessment after a disaster, especially in the first 24 hours over large urban areas, the team notes. But the current conventional, ground-level observations and sensor networks can present enormous challenges at such times, the team notes in a UNM research announcement.

Next-Generation Sensing

Building on previous research and patent-pending technology, the scientists are developing a comprehensive remote sensing system that could meet the needs of departments of transportation and other agencies.

(The CRS&SI program is part of U.S. DOT's Research, Development and Technology division.)

The researchers aim to provide U.S. DOT with "the latest in precision change detection and user optimized remote sensing systems" for post-disaster damage assessment.

Phillip Capper / Flickr; CC 2.0

Fine-scale images of damage and available data would be posted online for global viewing by engineers and officials, to assist in developing a response. The Inangahua Junction bridge on New Zealand's West Coast was crippled by a magnitude 7 earthquake in 1968.

The system employs an image-based infrastructure assessment model that uses "fast and precise data collection and processing within those critical time frames," the university says. With an approach called repeat station imaging (RSI), researchers hope to rapidly align and analyze images to detect fine-scale damage.

Sharing Assessment Data

The technology would replace the dangerous and time-consuming need to dispatch engineers to surveil potentially unstable structures and allow inspection of inaccessible structures, the team says.

In the next stage of the project, the team will interview transportation managers to devise hardware and software that can be mounted to manned aircraftinitially, a GT500 aircraft made by Quicksilver Manufacturing, of Temecula, CA.

Quicksilver Manufacturing

The initial sensing and surveillance hardware and software will be mounted on a Quicksilver Manufacturing GT500 aircraft. Scientists hope to demonstrate the technology next year.

The long-term goal, says Lippitt, is "to pre-deploy unmanned aircraft in a city that would fly around and map the damaged locations."

“The results of the changes or cracks would then be sent directly to any browser-based devicemobile phones, tablets, computersthat engineers around the country could quickly access to help evaluate the damage, so emergency managers and transportation managers know how to respond.”

The team is hoping to demonstrate the technology in 2016.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Disasters; DOT; Health & Safety; Infrastructure; Inspection; Locks and dams; North America; Research

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.