Drones could become the primary method for bridge inspections for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The department has been impressed by the initial tests run with the technology and are planning to push its capabilities further with a second phase of testing next month.
According to Minnesota Public Radio, MnDOT is getting ready enter the second and final phase of a $110,000 study it began over the summer to see if drones could be a cost-effective and safe alternative to inspect the state’s 20,000+ bridges.
The first phase of testing at four bridges in the state determined that unmanned aerial vehicles could get the same information that is normally collected through ground inspections with trucks, ladders and lifts. In the second phase of the study, which starts in November, the inspectors are set to test drones on the Blatnik Bridge in Duluth.
“The drones will help access places that we normally couldn’t or would be a safety hazard to an inspector,” MnDOT bridge inspection engineer Jennifer Zink said.
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Interestingly enough, MPR reports the state DOT hasn’t yet received an official exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration to pilot the drones for bridge inspections. The DOT would need to do so before operating the aircraft on a regular basis. The FAA has 1,732 petitions currently for its “section 33” certificates for drone use.
Minnesota isn’t the first state to consider using drones to monitor bridges and roads, the Michigan Department of Transportation did a study recently to see if drones would be a good option to inspect road conditions. Michigan said it probably wouldn’t begin using drones in the near future, and like Minnesota, it would need the approval of the FAA before its drone program takes off.