NUAIR and New York Thruway link to develop highway bridge inspections by drone

The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR) has announced a pilot programme using drones with New York State Thruway Authority to support infrastructure inspection activities. The two-phase programme is funded by Empire State Development grants and is part of NUAIR’s NYFLY initiative to help state agencies integrate drones into their daily operations to increase safety and help save time and money.

The initiative has the potential to increase efficiency and improve safety while lowering costs for inspections of bridges, culverts, and pavement, along with mapping, surveying and countless other uses.

Field testing is expected to begin this fall and last through spring 2022. Authority officials will then evaluate and analyze the collected data in order to determine next steps.

If the programme is deemed a success following rigorous field testing and detailed evaluation, the Authority envisions expanding the role of drones to assist with mapping and surveying the 570-mile superhighway system, cataloguing Thruway inventory and infrastructure, documenting damage and repairs, along with supporting general maintenance activities.

Thruway engineers will work with representatives of NUAIR in two phases to develop ways to meet Authority inspection objectives using drones, which are also known as unmanned aircraft systems. Empire State Development grants are funding the pilot programme, which is part of NUAIR’s NYFLY initiative to help state agencies integrate drones into their daily operations to increase safety and help save time and money.

Presently, bridge inspection primarily depends on visual and hands-on techniques to assess the condition of the structure. That often means relying on different types of equipment, ranging from ladders and scaffolding to man-lifts and under-bridge inspection vehicles, and even binoculars.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, drones can potentially be used to look at bridge components that are difficult to see, providing inspectors with information to determine if additional inspection is needed. Drones can additionally improve the bridge inspection process in several ways:

  • Improving safety for inspectors
  • Fewer lane closures for motorists reducing traffic impacts
  • Lowering overall inspection costs
  • Providing digital images and video.

As part of Phase One of the pilot programme, NUAIR is working with the Authority to determine the requirements to perform bridge inspections and associated data collection utilizing a drone. The parties also will jointly develop operational and safety procedures for the bridge inspections.

Once the protocols have been established, the Authority and NUAIR will collectively identify field testing sites along the Thruway’s superhighway system. The results will then be evaluated and used to determine if drones can be used safely and effectively on various bridges, interchanges and infrastructure.

NUAIR CEO Ken Stewart said, “We are excited to help NYSTA integrate drones into their daily operations. Flying a drone to scan a bridge is a lot safer than the traditional means of using a snooper truck, both for the crew inspecting the bridge and for motorists. Couple that with faster, more cost-effective inspections, it’s a win-win for the crew, the local economy and New York State as a whole.”

“Using drone technology to inspect bridges, overpasses and infrastructure along our entire system is an imaginable game-changer,” Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew J. Driscoll said. “Drones can provide views of hard-to-reach locations quickly and safely. This pilot program aligns with the Thruway’s vision of maximizing technological innovation and continuing to improve infrastructure for the future.”

Headquartered in Syracuse, NUAIR provides expertise in unmanned aircraft systems operations, aeronautical research, safety management and consulting services. NUAIR manages operations of the New York UAS Test Site at Griffiths International Airport in Rome, one of only seven Federal Aviation Administration-designated UAS test sites in the nation and the only FAA test site in New York.

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