UK Consortium Wins Drone Project Funding


Software development company RoboK AI recently announced that it, alongside a consortium of companies, has won government backing to use drones to monitor and control critical national infrastructure. The Intelligent Drones for Port and Highways Technology (InDePTH) project will utilize funding available from the U.K. Research and Innovation agency.

The project consortium consists of Associated British Ports (ABP), Kier Highways, Connected Places Catapult, RoboK AI, Herotech8 and British Telecommunications plc.

About InDePTH

Awarded in the third phase of the UKRI’s Future Flight Challenge, the consortium plans to build and test the use of drones to carry out automatic “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS) missions on infrastructure.

RoboK reports that it will specifically look at its value in three use case areas for ports and highways, including landside port operations and management, marine operations and highway safety and defect inspections.

Additionally, a goal for the project is to create efficient, low-carbon, cost-effective solutions for infrastructure management with Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), while practically showcasing opportunities for ports and highways to use drones as a service.

The project will reportedly develop the InDePTH platform using AI and data analytics obtained from these drones, offering integration from UAS imagery, operational systems and actionable insights. This will enable near real-time data transfer from capture to insight generation.

According to RoboK, the data gathered by UAS becomes a greater asset to a wider number of end users. Close collaboration between the two end users ABP and Kier will engage different industries with very similar requirements, sharing best practices and physical demonstrations.

“If we want to achieve leaps in Digital Transformation for Industry, we must embrace and develop the convergence of emerging innovative technologies, getting them working together seamlessly to deliver for end-users,” added Connor Lyons, Innovation Business Partner, ABP.

Lyons explained that the project directly tackles the convergence where drones carry out regular automated BVLOS flights, high bandwidth networking infrastructure streams live data and then AI models process and compute data.

“All of this working via automated systems to meet and improve the operational needs of the workers is critical to the U.K. economy and making big steps towards reducing carbon emissions,” said Lyons.

Using this real-time data from the drones, digital twins of ports and highways will be built and utilized to provide a picture of current infrastructure operations, incidents and asset condition. Then, AI will be applied to analyze drone imagery in several use cases, such as:

  • Maritime infrastructure inspection;
  • Reactive ad-hoc flights to quickly identify hazards both on land and over water; and
  • Inspection and auto-classification of safety critical highway defects such as potholes. 

“We are excited about this collaboration with industry leaders and the opportunity to use our AI-powered computer vision solutions to make large-scale logistics and transport infrastructure safer and more efficient!” said Hao Zheng, Co-Founder and CEO, RoboK.

“With videos captured by drones offering unparalleled flexibility and coverage, RoboK’s technology will enable actionable insights on a very large scale and contributing to the digital transformation of the U.K.’s highways, ports and many more critical assets.”

The UKRI Future Flight Challenge awarded 17 winning projects earlier this year, sharing 73 million pounds ($86.8 million) in funding to develop and show integrated aviation systems and new vehicle technologies. The challenge aims to provide potential societal benefits, ensure safety, transition to cleaner forms of flight and offer real-world demonstrations.

Recent Drone Use in Infrastructure

Back in September, PaintSquare Daily News reported that several U.S. state Departments of Transportation are turning towards utilizing autonomous drones to perform inspections on critical infrastructure. In addition to ease of use and increased safety for workers, this technology can reportedly improve workflow efficiency and lower costs, as well.

The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by 2025, there could be a total of more than 2.6 million commercial and recreational drones flying in U.S. airspace. Currently, there are more than 860,000 drones registered in the country, or about three times as many crewed aircraft.

The following month, utility company Scottish Water announced it was adopting the use of “state-of-the-art” drones and lasers to improve Scotland’s sewers and reduce its carbon emissions.

The company notes that many of its sewers, with some dating back to the Victorian era, have been difficult to access. By deploying these methods, crews are able to see parts of the network that traditional surveying methods can’t reach.

Partnering with Scottish Water, Caledonia Water Alliance, civil engineering trenchless specialist Environmental Techniques and drone manufacturer Good Friday Robotics first used the technology together in July on a large brick sewer in Bath Street in the Glasgow city center. It has also been rolled out in other locations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and some rural areas.

According to the company’s release, using these new techniques will allow them to assess the sewers’ condition more accurately, making key decisions about investment in maintenance or rehabilitation work to improve them. This is then anticipated to make the sewers more resilient, improve service to customers and reduce the risk of leaks, collapses and environmental pollution.

To accomplish this, two operatives utilize drone and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) scanning and measurement systems. This method replaces teams of up to 15 workers, keeping them out of challenging and dangerous underground conditions.

The LiDAR is a laser scanning tool that measures distances, with the associated software creating an accurate computerized 3D point field output that can be viewed on screen. The drone carries this tool and camera onboard as a worker pilots the drone into the pipe for visual inspection and LiDAR measurement.

For the inspections, workers seek to identify issues such as cracks, holes, partial collapses, infiltration and root ingress. The outputs are then manually reviewed by operators to spot and code the defects. The company reports that the systems provide substantially better video quality, defect confirmation and location accuracy compared to traditional techniques.

Additionally, the drones were adapted specifically for sewers. Made from carbon fiber, the weight was reduced and battery life can be extended.

Scottish Water reports that these techniques will also reduce carbon emissions from sewer surveys by as much as 80%, helping the company towards its target of reaching Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2040. Workers will be redeployed to other tasks to fully utilize their skills when not completing inspection surveys.

At the end of October, a project from the University of Pittsburgh reported that it is utilizing a drone to prepare a digital model and history of the construction of the new Fern Hollow Bridge. Believed to be the first of the kind in the country, the digital model project involves piloting a hexacopter drone for 11.5 minutes every two weeks to record photo and laser images of the construction progress.

The Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh at the beginning of this year, and its replacement bridge progress is currently underway.

Funded by a $141,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the project is being led by associate professor Alessandro Fascetti from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. It is also part of the Impactful Resilient Infrastructure Science and Engineering (IRISE) consortium, where the university works with private contractors and government transportation officials to develop new construction practices and solve problems.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the goal is to have a 3D blueprint available over the life of the new structure so that engineers can look back at the construction to see how the project progressed, as well as what might have allowed future problems to develop.

The drone features a battery, propellors on each of the six wings, and a high-speed camera, a laser imaging, detection and ranging device (LiDAR) and a GPS bar to direct the drone and balance its orientation. Then, the drone reportedly takes flight on a preprogrammed, computerized route 165 feet high that involves three passes over the construction site to gather information.

Additionally, the team developed protocol for what information the drone should collect, the flight plan and how the information will be used once it’s gathered. The drone will reportedly take 300 to 500 photos during each flight and use LiDAR to check 25 million to 30 million individual points at the site to follow changes over time.

Afterwards, the team reviews the information the drone gathered during the flight and adds it to the database, where a computer combines the LIDAR images with the photos to eventually create a layered, 3D model of the new bridge as a permanent record that officials can use for reference decades later.

The research team hopes that a historical record of construction can be used over the years as normal wear and tear takes place, allowing engineers to review what has occurred at various points and study whether changes in construction procedures can improve results in the future. 


Tagged categories: Drones; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); EU; Europe; Funding; Government; Infrastructure; Infrastructure; Port Infrastructure; Program/Project Management; Quality Control; Research and development; Roads/Highways; Technology

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