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US report shows a growing number of state DOTs using drones

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has released a report showing that a growing number of state departments of transportation (DOTs) across the USA are using innovative drone technology to creatively improve safety, reduce traffic congestion, and save money.

According to AASHTO’s March 2016 survey, 33 state DOTs have, or are, exploring, researching, testing or using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also referred to as drones, to inspect bridges and assist with clearing vehicle crashes, among other innovative applications. The survey also found that 17 state DOTs were either exploring drone usage, assisting in the development of drone policies, or supporting drone research.

The AASHTO video report explores the many ways that state DOTs are using drones, and the organization has also prepared a fact sheet that highlights the benefits of UAVs. The new study follows a joint survey of members of the AASHTO Standing Committee on Aviation and the Standing Committee on Highways that was conducted in the summer of 2015, which documented growing interest in drone technology. That study was initiated from a roundtable discussion in May 2015 at the AASHTO Spring Meeting in Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA.

AASHTO is planning a series of webinars on UAV technology and it will hold a peer exchange during its upcoming Spring Meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, to update delegates on the latest developments in the use of drones by state DOTs. AASHTO is keen to point out that all drone testing must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Several state DOTs have reported that the application process to research UAVs can take months to complete, but FAA officials say new regulations for commercial drone testing and usage may be ready by July 2016.

This spring, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is set to begin a two-year UAV study: phase two of an 18-month UAV study completed by the agency and the Michigan Tech Research Institute in 2014. In the AASHTO report, MDOT’s 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. MDOT estimates that a standard bridge deck inspection takes eight hours, a crew of four people and heavy equipment and costs an estimated US$4,600. The same inspection with a drone takes two people and just two hours, at an estimated cost of US$250.

“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.”

Minnesota DOT (MnDOT) has also tested a single UAV in its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Bridge Inspection Demonstration Project, which conducted safety inspections at four bridges located across the state. Cassandra Isackson, director of aeronautics at MnDOT, noted, “We’ve been looking into drones for some time. In addition to operating the highway system, MnDOT is in charge of aviation as well, so we’ve been looking at drones from the perspective of commercial operators, businesses, everyone out there using them. The highway side of MnDOT has been exploring them for potential cost savings for things like bridge inspections, surveying, and aerial photography.”

To watch AASHTO's video report click here.

March 30, 2016

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