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How the transportation sector is using advanced drone technology to inspect infrastructure

Autonomous drones like those developed by Skydio can help inspect critical infrastructure such as bridges. (Photo: Skydio)

The Department of Transportation is increasingly using autonomous drones to monitor and inspect critical infrastructure such as bridges and highways. Autonomous drones can eliminate the need for difficult and dangerous manual inspections. Autonomous drone inspections are also inexpensive to perform. Departments of Transportation (DOT) in Alaska, North Carolina, New York, and other states have found that using autonomous drone technology to monitor and inspect infrastructure can improve workflow efficiency and reduce costs. did.

Autonomous drones, like those developed by Skydio, are easy to operate, even for inexperienced pilots. Senior Solutions Engineer David Buhrman said:

Skydio completed its $100 million Series C funding in the summer of 2020. Shortly thereafter, the Defense Innovation Unit approved a version of his X2 model and four of his other drones as reliable purchases for government customers. In the summer of 2021, the FAA approved his BNSF railroad to remotely operate his dock-based Skydio drones for his BVLOS operations, including infrastructure inspections.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program within Alaska’s DOT makes frequent use of drones to perform routine inspections of infrastructure. Ryan Marlow, his UAS program coordinator for Statewide Aviation at the Alaska Department of Transportation (AKDOT), says they average eight to 12 bridge inspections each day.

AKDOT’s UAS program team is currently using Skydio’s autonomous drones to inspect infrastructure. They have had particular success with Skydio 3D Scan software, which automates the data capture process to generate 3D models of their infrastructure. At a webinar hosted by AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) last week, Marlow said:

He commented that the 3D Scan software’s interface is easy to use. “With engineers on site he has had a lot of success with 3D scanning.”

They first used the technology to perform autonomous 3D scanning on a footbridge over a stream in Juneau. The bridge had been manually inspected many times, but the drone visually caught a previously undetected structural problem that needed repair. “I could see something leaking from the timber,” said Marlowe. “We were able to capture this environment in a way that we could not visualize before.”

Skydio’s 2+ model will be introduced in late 2021. (Photo: Skydio)

Data collected by autonomous drones will also help measure changes in critical infrastructure over time, helping AKDOT prioritize the most urgent repairs.

Skydio’s UAS uses six 4K cameras working together to visualize its surroundings, explains Skydio’s David Buhrman. Navigation is supported by deep learning algorithms and advanced predictive artificial intelligence to make decisions. Skydio Autonomy Enterprise enables proximity obstacle avoidance. This is especially useful for securely capturing data during infrastructure inspections.

In 2020, North Carolina’s DOT received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate Skydio drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for bridge inspections. This follows extensive cooperation between NCDOT, Skydio and the FAA. A key advantage of Skydio’s technology is that its drones don’t require GPS, making them perfect for inspecting his more than 13,500 bridges in North Carolina.

The Skydio 2 model was the company’s entry into the consumer market. They quickly realized that it could be useful for enterprise solutions. An updated version, his Skydio 2+ model, will be introduced at the end of 2021. It offers “360-degree obstacle avoidance based on nine onboard deep neural networks,” Buhrman said. “We use these networks for motion tracking, identifying people, vehicles, and more.”

He described the Enterprise Edition Skydio X2 as “an enterprise workhorse and a ‘rugged’ alternative to the 2+.” The X2 model was released last year with the Skydio Enterprise Controller. The X2’s airframe structure is based on a magnesium and carbon fiber composite, while the controller consists of impact-resistant plastic, a protective cover, and an internal antenna.

Skydio’s X2 model is designed to be more robust to provide an enterprise solution. (Photo: Skydio)

Skydio partnered with DroneDeploy a few months ago to automate the data analysis process. Images from the Skydio cloud are imported into the DroneDeploy platform and processed immediately, Buhrman explained.

“Under Part 107, the FAA requires that a remote pilot be present on the aircraft so that he or she can see the attitude, altitude, and position of the aircraft at all times,” he said. “As long as pilots can take over manual flight in an emergency, there are no instructions for flying in an automated fashion.”

Sean Nordstrom, Product Marketing Manager at Skydio, explained the limitations of manual drone inspections. For example, maneuvering around low bridges is difficult, as is maneuvering in GPS-denied environments. “It requires very advanced pilot skills and manual drones are expensive,” he said.

Enabling BVLOS drones to fly is also expensive, and getting an exemption from the FAA for BVLOS operations is notoriously expensive.

Transportation agencies and other individual state agencies across the United States are increasingly adopting the use of drones to inspect infrastructure and assets as well.

In partnership with the nonprofit NUAIR, the New York State Highway Department has launched a pilot program to use drones to inspect highway bridges. According to the Federal Highway Administration, UAS has the potential to inspect bridges and other infrastructure components that are difficult to manually inspect. Drones could improve inspector safety and reduce overall inspection costs, according to an announcement by the NYS Thruway Authority on its pilot program. Another advantage of using UAS is the digital images and video that the aircraft can capture.

The West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) is also using drones to improve the safety and efficiency of gross stockpile inspections. This department store holds many large piles of crushed stone, gravel, and other materials used in building and maintaining roads. It was inefficient and dangerous for the crew to physically survey and inventory the stockpile.

Following an initial $25,000 investment in drone equipment and pilots, WVDOT calculated a total savings of over $343,000 in just one month of using drones to survey inventory. The manual survey required him 15 days of work by 42 employees, but the same workload was completed in his 9 days by his 7 drone pilots.

WVDOT could expand its drone program to conduct road safety assessments and provide topographic maps to help design new road routes.