A new survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) finds that 35 of 44 (80%) responding state departments of transportation (DOTs) are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, for a wide range of purposes.
The study finds that 20 state DOTs have incorporated drones into their daily operations, and another 15 state DOTs are in the research phase, testing drones to determine how they can be best used. All state DOTs deploying drones follow FAA’s Part 107 Rule or the state DOT has received a public Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA to conduct drone operations.
All 20 of the state DOTs that are operating drones on a daily basis are deploying them to gather photos and videos of highway construction projects. In addition to photography, 14 states also reported using them for surveying, 12 for public education and outreach, 10 for bridge inspections, eight for emergency response, six for pavement inspections, five for scientific research, two for daily traffic control and monitoring, and one state DOT was using drones to conduct high-mast light pole inspections.
Of the 35 states deploying drones, 23 have established comprehensive drone policies that cover the acquisition, operation, airspace restrictions, and the training and permitting of drones and drone pilots. Of the state DOTs reporting, 27 said they were adding full-time staff to operate and maintain their drone fleets. However, some experts predict that as more public and private organizations begin to deploy UAS, the demand for drone pilots and other related expertise will grow, making it more difficult for state DOTS to attract qualified personnel.
North Carolina was an early adopter of drone technology. In 2013 the state legislature designated NCDOT’s Division of Aviation to be the statewide authority for drone operations, and its UAS program aims to make drone technology available to DOT employees across the state.
A joint NCDOT/North Carolina Highway Patrol (NCHP) project in 2017 simulated a head-on crash in a controlled environment. The NCHP’s Collision Reconstruction Unit took nearly two hours to collect its data, while pilots using three drones took just 25 minutes to complete the mission.
NCDOT said that had the simulated crash occurred on I-95 it would have cost an estimated US$8,600 in lost productivity for every hour one lane of the interstate was closed. The trial showed the cost of the traditional investigation was US$12,900, or just US$3,600 using drones.
“This is another example of how state DOTs are advancing innovation to improve safety and productivity for the traveling public,” said Bud Wright, AASHTO’s executive director. “Drones are being used to significantly cut the time it takes to gather data, which is leading to major time and cost savings.”
Basil Yap, manager of NCDOT’s UAS program, commented, “We were blown away by the cost savings that we noticed from this particular research project. By using drones this way, motorists, state DOT crews and emergency responders benefit because we’re getting them out of harm’s way faster, by clearing crash scenes quicker.”