Bridges and drones go together perfectly when it comes to inspections
Author: Dave Anderson, P.E., and Nick Ray, EIT
Bridges and drones. Now that’s a combination. But why? Are there direct benefits of applying UAS/drones in the inspection of railroad bridges? And if so, for what reasons? Answering these questions might seem obvious. However, there’s quite a bit to consider, especially when you factor in safety procedures, risk assessments, airspace approvals, mission planning, travel logistics, defect recognition, situational awareness, obstacle avoidance, photo capture, data management, training proficiency, and much more.
The successful use of UAS technology in bridge inspections is complex. It requires expertise in piloting, a variety of equipment and sensors, experience with photography, knowledge of everchanging FAA regulations, and careful planning by the engineer and pilot to implement effective data-capture plans. Additionally, implementing a UAS program involves considerable investment in equipment, training, policy development, and understanding the risks associated with the technology.
We are frequently asked two questions: 1) Will utilizing drones displace the use of equipment such as “snooper trucks” or physical tactile inspections? 2) What are the advantages and different applications for utilizing drones on railroad bridge inspections? Both are great questions. The short answer to the first question is “no, the use of a drone will not remove the overall need for a snooper truck.” At least not on more technical and detailed bridge inspections. However, the extent to which snooper trucks or equivalent equipment are required is reduced and focused on more exact inspection points with a better understanding of pre-existing conditions and the data-collection requirement.
The same applies to climbing or repelling off bridge structures for tactile access. In terms of the second question, there are just too many critical measurements and risk factors to say that any one method alone (drone, snooper truck, tactile, etc.) is best. Utilizing one method (tool) or some combination of all three is dependent on the priority ranking, bridge type, environmental conditions, risk assessment, and data to be collected. The advantage of having drones and various sensors in your tool bag is the safety, variety, and efficiency with which data can be collected. UAS data collection can include high-resolution video, still images, thermal (surface delamination), photogrammetry (global geometry and terrain mapping), and LiDAR (geometric measures and terrain modeling).
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