Here’s Why You Should Use Drones For Bridge Inspections

Most people spend very little time thinking about the safety of bridges.

As we traverse bridges during our workday commutes and weekend road trips, our thoughts seldom gravitate towards the structural integrity of each bridge we cross. In reality, they require routine bridge inspections to ensure that they are safe for commercial and personal use.

There are over 590,000 bridges strewn across the network of highways stretching across the United States, alone. The Federal Highway Act (FHWA) of 1968 mandates that each bridge with a length of 20 feet or more must be inspected at least once every 24 months. Each inspection must align the criteria outlined by the National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS).

Other countries around the world have similar laws and standards.

Bridge inspections address several essential requirements outlined in the FHWA. The number-one deliverable is determining whether or not the bridge is safe for use.

Additionally, a bridge inspection will identify major structural issues that require follow-up, quantify the overall condition of the bridge to prioritize capital needs, identify routine maintenance, and catalog a history of the bridge’s condition.

Inspecting bridges has been a labor-intensive process until recently, due to advances in drone technology. By using drones to perform bridge inspections, costs decrease and the overall efficiency of the operation increases.

Reviewing traditional bridge inspection methods and comparing them against inspections with drones will help illustrate the benefits of applying UAV technology to this monumental task.

Traditional Bridge Inspections

There are many types of bridge inspections.

Some of the more common types are damage, fracture-critical member, hands-on, in-depth, initial, routine, underwater, and special inspections. Each of these requires collecting visual data, both with the naked eye and with specialized equipment.

Typical inspection tools include ground-penetrating radar, handheld thermal cameras, survey equipment, measuring instruments, and more. When inspectors need to examine the sides or undercarriages of bridges, the inspection team often requires the use of cranes, hoists, other heavy equipment, climbing gear, artificial lighting, and hand tools.

Human-based inspections place the inspection team at risk while hanging over or under bridges, sometimes hundreds of feet in the air. One of the most laborious components of the traditional inspection method is the visual inspection from underneath. Every inch of the structure must be reviewed to identify cracks, water damage, rusting metal, crumbling concrete, and other signs of structural fatigue.

It is a slow process that can take hours or even days to complete. In many cases, as a team of people completes their inspection, the bridge needs to be closed off to traffic. Especially in rural areas, this can cause a significant interruptions in the flow of traffic.

Bridge inspection
Traditional bridge inspections require extended time, resources, and funding.

Drone-Based Bridge Inspections

Unlike traditional methods, drones do not place people in harm’s way. Additionally, drones capture visual data much faster, and cover the structure with greater accuracy.

Under normal circumstances, drone inspections do not require closing the bridge to traffic, which minimizes the inconvenience of the inspection on the community. In just the last few years, advances in UAV design, AI software development, and hardware engineered to aid in positioning without GPS signals have made drones ideal for bridge inspections.

Drones designed for commercial applications can easily be equipped with just about any camera or optic needed for the inspection. High powered zoom lens, thermal cameras, lidar, and laser range finding payloads collect much of the data engineers need to review when assessing a bridge’s condition. Pilots can program drones to take overlapping images of a bridge at various angles to ensure complete structural coverage.

Some drones have AI software, which, when combines with numerous sensors around the aircraft, paint a 3D picture of everything around the UAV. This feature is especially helpful when navigating the drone through tight spaces often present underneath bridges. 3D pictures can effectively replace the need for GPS, allowing for safe and accurate flight when GPS signals experience interference or are blocked entirely.

Commerce depends on the ability to move goods between different points, and bridges are essential in making the flow of goods possible. Without regular inspections, these structures would quickly become unsafe and unusable.

Drones are ushering in a new era for industrial inspections. UAVs are proving to be an attractive solution for bridge inspections, keeping people safe, lowering costs, and producing more accurate data.

Find a Better Way With Drones

Whether you are responsible for the bridges in your region or handle inspections of bridges, considering the use of drones to maintain the safety of the structures in your care is well worth the time to investigate them further.

Want to hire professional drone pilots to perform your bridge inspections? How about a team of experts to train your current inspection team?

At Consortiq, we’re here to help you build your use-case, provide training and support, and even do the work for you — or work alongside your team of remote pilots — to get the job done your way and on your terms.

With hubs in both the United States and United Kingdom, we’ll come to you, and help you find a better way with drones.

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David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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