underside of bridge (Matt Ragen/Shutterstock.com)

NC gets waiver to fly bridge-inspection drones beyond line of sight

Inspectors with the North Carolina Department of Transportation can now use unmanned aerial systems to examine the underside of bridges under a waiver granted by the Federal Aviation Administration’s UAS Integration Pilot Program.

Drones have been used in several states for bridge inspections since 2016 because they can more easily get up underneath the structure for a close view of the concrete and trusses to better analyze the bridge’s integrity and identify possible problems. However, until now, pilots had to keep the drone in sight or use visual observers or surveillance technology to monitor it when it flew out of the inspector’s view.

Under the FAA waiver that allows drones manufactured by Skydio to fly beyond the pilot’s line of sight, inspectors will be able to collect high-resolution images in difficult-to-see places, improving safety and saving money.

“Inspectors will collect images using the drone instead of a snooper truck or having to suspend the inspector from the bridge,” said Ben Spain, NCDOT’s UAS program manager. “They’ll be able to do these inspections quickly with minimal impacts to the traveling public, like not having to close lanes of traffic for as long.”

The waiver application was developed in part with Skydio, whose drones feature on-board NVIDIA-powered artificial intelligence and six 4K cameras that allows them to navigate and avoid obstacles in environments where GPS signals can be unreliable, such as among the trusses beneath bridges.

As the first state transportation agency to receive such a waiver, NCDOT is paving the way for other states to fully use drones in bridge and infrastructure inspections. 

“We are pleased to be leading the way with this fantastic new tool,” North Carolina’s Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette said. “Safety is our top priority at NCDOT, and this new system will enable us to complete inspections while better protecting our inspectors and the integrity of our bridges.”

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