UAV: State DOTs employing drones to improve safety, collect data, slash costs

March 28, 2016

A recent report by AASHTO indicates that majority of U.S. state DOTs are actively in the UAV game

The following is an edited version of a release issued by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

A growing number of state departments of transportation are leveraging innovative unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology to creatively improve safety, reduce traffic congestion and save money.

According to a recent survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), 33 state departments of transportation have or are presently exploring, researching, testing or using UAVs to inspect bridges and assist with clearing vehicle crashes, among other applications.

A special report by AASHTO's Transportation TV explores the many ways that state DOTs are using UAVs. AASHTO has also prepared an on-line fact sheet highlighting the benefits of UAVs. AASHTO's latest poll comes on the heels of a joint survey of members of the AASHTO Standing Committee on Aviation and the Standing Committee on Highways conducted in the summer of 2015, which documented growing interest in UAV technology. That study was initiated from a roundtable discussion in May 2015 at the AASHTO Spring Meeting in Cheyenne, Wy.

This spring, the Michigan State Department of Transportation (MDOT) will begin a two-year UAV study. In the AASHTO Transportation TV special report, MDOT Engineer of Operations and Maintenance Steven J. Cook said 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 [they] 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 at an estimated $4,600. The same inspection with a UAV takes two people just two hours, at an estimated cost of $250.

"We've been looking into drones for some time," said Cassandra Isackson, Director of Aeronautics at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). "In addition to operating the highway system, MnDOT is in charge of aviation as well, so we've been looking at [UAVs] 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."

MnDOT tested a single UAV in its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Bridge Inspection Demonstration Project, which conducted safety inspections at four bridges located across the state. And in 2015 the University of Vermont, working in conjunction with the Vermont Agency of Transportation, used a U.S. DOT grant to study the use of UAVs to monitor rivers to prevent flooding and damage to roadways.

The AASHTO March 2016 survey found that 17 state DOTs, including 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 states, including Alaska, Colorado, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, were either exploring UAV usage, assisting in the development of drone polices, or supporting drone research. 

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