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MnDOT study evaluates using drones for bridge inspections

With 20,291 bridges over 10ft (3m) in length, and 4,571 trunk highway bridges across Minnesota that all require regular inspection, the state’s Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has been exploring ways to control cost and manage risk by using drones. A recent study by MnDOT has looked at the effectiveness and possibility of employing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to aid in bridge inspections, by gathering images without the use of an under-bridge inspection vehicle. The research team used drones on four bridge inspections around the state, and found that the UAV’s ability to gather high quality still images and video footage of bridges, correlated with the findings in previous bridge inspections that used conventional methods. The drones also captured data from infrared (IR) cameras and data needed to construct maps of bridge areas and 3D models of bridge elements.

The goals in Phase two of the study, which begins in early fall, include operating the drone without a GPS signal and gathering images from the underside of bridges. MnDOT staff will be required to obtain authorization from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), called a ‘Section 333 exemption’, to operate a UAV. Operators must also obtain a certificate of waiver or authorization to permit MnDOT to use a particular aircraft, for a particular purpose, in a particular area. Adhering to these requirements will ensure that MnDOT drone use is safe and responsible. In addition, all operators of drones that receive compensation are required to obtain a commercial operations license to demonstrate that the operation is approved by the FAA.

The MnDOT project team, which included personnel from Collins Engineers Inc and Unmanned Experts, also worked closely with the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics to plan the project and gain the necessary approvals to use the Aeyron Skyranger UAV. Although the Skyranger also has a very long battery life at around 50 minutes, it did not have the ability to fly under the bridge decks because the loss of Global Positioning System (GPS) signal would cause the aircraft to fly vertically and return to the launch point. The team is hoping to use a Sensfly eXom model for Phase two of the study, as it has the ability to look directly up, fly under bridge decks, use infrared thermography and use ultrasonic proximity sensors to avoid objects.

 

“Using drones could help us decrease the rising costs of bridge inspection, while minimizing risks associated with current bridge inspection methods,” said Jennifer Zink, MnDOT bridge inspection engineer. “Due to the successful outcome of the initial project, we have a better understanding of the drone capabilities we would like to use during an actual scheduled bridge inspection. The drone that will be used in Phase two is specifically designed for inspection of structures. Several goals exist for the second research project, and if we can accomplish them, they will decrease MnDOT’s costs and increase bridge inspection abilities. It could improve inspection data collection for local agencies as well.”

To see a video of the test taking place click here 

September 30, 2015

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