EDITORIAL: Taking a flying leap

DOTs need to get some sort of drone program airborne

October 07, 2014

If somebody said I had a 4-in. vertical leap, I would debate it.

I mean, come on. It has to be less than that. I wish I was kidding, but apparently the Scottish ancestry that drizzled magic Heather pollen over me at birth for my 6-foot-6 height also gave me Highland rocks for feet. I am definitely bottom-heavy with zero ability to fly—even if I had wings. However, the drone-like display bobbing around in the air at a conference a couple of years ago in Las Vegas looked like a big fishing lure, and I was a catfish caught in the moment. Obviously a bottom dweller thanks to my lack of any kind of vertical, the show up above tempted me. I had to snatch it up. So I tried to jump up and touch it, and with my colleagues using iPhones to capture the magical moment I attempted to gain the right amount of speed for the right amount of lift. I’m almost positive I heard the Wright brothers laugh that day. Wait, all the gut-busting was coming from my industry “friends.”

I’m surprised the use of drones in the transportation industry has taken off like a pair of my size 13s. Very few are really talking about it, but the potential, at least in my mind, is almost as exciting as watching Cavalier great LeBron James parasail from all angles around the basket. Bridge inspection first comes to mind. How easy, and safe, would it be to send up a drone to take pictures of a structurally deficient bridge? How cool would it be to have the miniature aircraft buzz around a live work zone, and have the video stream to a project website where users could see real-time footage of not only the amount of congestion, but of what was going on at the jobsite that day? Instead of helicopters, why not capture the look of morning and evening rush hours with a drone? I imagine it would be far less expensive . . . or would it?

The pilots of this movement have the wing flaps fully extended during takeoff. Back in early spring, the North Carolina DOT looked like it was about to unleash a hangar full of drones, but lawmakers wanted to establish some kind of drone committee, and the prices to operate the technology broke down like this: $130,000 a year for data storage and management; approximately $435,000 a year to operate and maintain the unmanned aircraft; and about $850,000 in initial start-up costs, which include purchasing the aircraft and hiring a chief pilot and other staff. Wait a minute, a chief pilot? Kids can operate the scaled-down version; why not take engineers currently on staff and use a couple days, or a week, and give them some hands-on knowledge for the military-style drones? Or why not use the childproof ones? If you are scanning a deficient bridge, all you need is to hook up a camera and click away. Now I know the inspections go much deeper than that, and some day I am sure a drone will come with all the gadgets, but for now, for the simpler tasks that currently require an aerial lift, a team of engineers and photo documentation, why not simplify the task and soften the costs? I think it is totally feasible if politicians stop yanking the project down. I mean, a drone board? That’s like having a construction-barrel board. It’s simply unnecessary.

The trails being blazed here are charred with mismanagement and missed opportunity. Now, I realize the drone scanning of a live work zone is a little bit further down the line, but there is no reason to think an opportunity cannot be seized here in the now. More DOTs need to take a hard look at this technology . . . and get it off the ground. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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