According to a March 2016 survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 33 state departments of transportation have or are exploring, researching, testing or using unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, to inspect bridges and assist with clearing vehicle crashes, among other innovative applications.
This spring, Michigan State Department of Transportation (MDOT) is set to begin a two-year UAV study, which is phase two of an18-month UAV study completed by MDOT and the Michigan Tech Research Institute in 2014.
In the AASHTO Transportation TV special report, MDOT Engineer of Operations and Maintenance Steven J. Cook says UAVs are a safe, reliable and cost-effective way to monitor traffic flows, obtain photos from inside confined spaces and gather data on bridge conditions.
“Our first study looked at the viability (of UAVs) and what we found out is that the unmanned aerial vehicle provided a mechanism to keep our workers out of harm’s way,” Cook said. “A traditional bridge inspection, for example, typically involves setting up work zones, detouring traffic and using heavy equipment. The UAVs can get in and get out quickly, capturing data in near real time and causing less distraction and inconvenience to drivers.”
MDOT estimates that a standard bridge deck inspection takes eight hours, a crew of four people and heavy equipment, costing an estimated $4,600. The same inspection with a drone takes two people, just two hours at an estimated cost of $250.
The AASHTO March 2016 survey found that 17 state DOTs – Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington – had studied or used drones while 16 state DOTs -- Alaska, Colorado, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – were either exploring drone usage, assisting in the development of drone polices or supporting drone research.
All drone testing must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Several state DOTs reported that the application process to research UAVs can take months to complete. FAA officials say new regulations for commercial drone testing and usage may be ready by July.
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