New Drone Infrastructure Inspection Bill Introduced
Earlier this month, several U.S. Senators introduced companion legislation to the bipartisan Drone Infrastructure Inspection Act that was passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in April.
Following its clearance with the committee, the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant Act now moves to the House floor for voting. It was first introduced by Arizona Rep. Greg Stanton and Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves.
H.R. 5315 would authorize $100 million in competitive grants to use American-made drones to perform critical infrastructure inspection, maintenance or construction projects. Additionally, it would make another $100 million available for drone education and workforce training.
“Using a drone to inspect infrastructure in hard-to-reach places—such as underneath bridges—can speed up the inspection process so we can get through the backlog more quickly, and it can help save money too,” Stanton said at the committee markup in April.
“Not only that, but drone inspections are much safer for workers than having a human hang under a tall bridge. It’s an easy way to improve on-the-job safety.”
Stanton noted that many state department of transportation, tribes and municipalities already use drones to augment human inspections when inspecting bridges, roads, dams and electric substations. The Arizona Department of Transportation reportedly uses drones to inspect bridges and perform surveying work along state highways.
Additionally, the drones could be used to inspect areas after natural disasters to determine the extend of damage and whether areas are safe.
On Aug. 4, it was announced that U.S. Senators Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), John Boozman (R-Arkansas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) introduced the companion bipartisan legislation. Government entities can reportedly use the grant funding to purchase drones, buy drone inspection systems and help unmanned aircraft system program capabilities.
The introduced legislation also aims to help universities access grants to train drone-operating workers. Alongside education and training, it would provide $50 million in both fiscal year 2022 and 2023 for both types of grants, totaling $100 million in grants for each year.
“As we make historic investments in fixing and updating our nation’s infrastructure, we can rely on the latest technology to identify physical vulnerabilities that need to be fixed,” said Senator Rosen. “This bipartisan legislation will help local governments invest in drones and skilled workers to ensure America’s existing infrastructure remains safe.”
“Using advanced technology for infrastructure safety inspections will improve and strengthen our bridges and railways,” said Senator Boozman. “In Arkansas, we’ve invested in modernizing our capabilities, including utilizing drones and other emerging technologies. The DIIG Act continues to build on this momentum while also helping develop the workforce to operate these cutting edge tools.”
“This bill promotes the use of domestic drone technology to inspect and maintain our nation’s vital infrastructure,” said Senator Blumenthal. “Through important grant programs, our workforce will be given the tools and skilled training necessary to keep our bridges, dams, and highways across the country safe. I’m proud to join this legislation as we build on the groundbreaking investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”
“The inspection process for infrastructure projects can be accelerated using drones, as well as increase on-the-job safety for our workers,” Stanton said in a statement. “I’m encouraged to see a companion bill introduced in Senate, and I encourage my colleagues to pass this important legislation.”
Drones for Infrastructure Inspection
In 2020, a Victoria, British Columbia-based technology company hoped their drones would be used for maintaining infrastructure across Canada, the United States and around the globe. However, beyond inspections, the system could also be used to track damage over time so civil engineers can plan preventive maintenance.
“We started with dams but the next thing we’re doing is going into bridges and tunnels, even nuclear power plants, water tanks, all types of concrete structures, and then slowly going to steel and timber structures as well,” said Harsh Rathod, co-founder of Niricson at the time. “We can apply it to any type of asset.”
According to the Journal of Commerce, the drone technology uses visual, acoustical and infrared heat sensing to inspect what’s underneath an infrastructure’s concrete surface. The combination of technology can reportedly detect cracks, voids or other issues by flying around the structure and collecting information using its onboard acoustic recorder, optical camera and infrared camera.
Once the data is collected, it is then immediately analyzed using Niricson’s software—developed three years ago by Rathod and his PhD supervisor Rishs Gupta—which can further indicate the width, length, depth and overall significance of the defects and, if necessary, can start taking actions to repair them.
Last year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation utilized high-resolution drone photographs of the James J. Hill Stone Arch Bridge during inspection to utilize with Microsoft HoloLens technology and software from Bentley Systems.
The technology pieced the photos together in a sort of “reality mesh” 3D model comprised of millions of polygons. The result creates what Bentley describes as a mixed-reality workflow, which aims to combine inspection photographs with physically being onsite, without actually having to be onsite.
While the reality mesh can be viewed on a computer or tablet, in using the cloud-connected HoloLens, users can view the bridge at a zoomed-out tabletop view of at a 1:1 scale, allowing engineers to see portions of the structure up close in high resolution. During this type of virtual inspection, the engineer can add annotations, perform measurements, and highlight potential problem areas.
While MNDOT has policies in place governing drone flights for bridge inspections that comply with Federal Aviation Administration regulations, Jennifer L. Wells, MNDOT state bridge inspection engineer, predicts that a version of the workflow could eventually become a standard practice for bridge inspections in the state.