The use of drones to perform what in many cases are high risk, infrastructure inspections is on the rise. From bridges to pipelines to high voltage transmission towers drones equipped with the right sensor can keep inspectors out of harms way.
From Steven Perez in a Skyward blog post.
In America and overseas, the built environment shows signs of strain. Major bridges have buckled, energy grid outages from severe weather are now common, and dams have failed. It’s the result of several factors: population growth, climate change, and worn out infrastructure systems. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the U.S. alone needs $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2020 just to bring the country’s support systems to acceptable levels.
Drones play a growing role in finding problems in the systems we rely on for daily life and business. UAS can detect failing structures and equipment in less time and for less cost than traditional methods. Usually, they’re safer, too.
What kind of infrastructure data can drones gather?
High-resolution photos, up-close videos, thermal imagery, terrain maps, 3D models, cloud points using LiDAR, volumetrics—drones can gather a wide variety of data. Drones equipped with sensors and cameras gather real-time footage or store data for later analysis.
For example, topographical and geological data gathered by drones can generate models that help identify promising oil and gas drill sites, or the optimal layout for a solar utility array. High-res images collected from the air can reveal corrosion on transmission line conductors. Thermal sensors hovering above pipelines can detect leaks. First-person, aerial-view video can scope structures after disasters, when conditions on the ground are too risky for people.
Drone Inspections for Transportation Infrastructure
More than one-third of interstate bridges have been in service for more than 50 years. Well over 55,000 bridges in the United States are now considered structurally deficient, spans that are crossed by vehicles 185 million times a day. The nation’s largest single infrastructure system—our interstate highways—is also past its design life.
Eighty percent of state highway departments now have UAS programs that are helping them keep an eye on infrastructure. They use drones for bridge, pavement, and light-pole inspections, and to gather aerial views of highway construction progress. Drones deliver much better data about what’s going on, without requiring inspectors to climb to heights, go up in a bucket truck, or be in proximity to speeding traffic. One study found drones could detect concrete crack sizes on bridges down to 0.02 inches, even in low-light conditions.
Railway infrastructure is also benefiting from drones. In one example, the time required to collect survey data on busy existing railroad tracks, needed as part of design work for a new line near London, was cut from an estimated three to six months to about two days, with photographs providing 1 to 2 mm accuracy levels.
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