Discovery Magazine

Proof of Concept for Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for High Mast Pole and Bridge Inspections

The inspection of structures such as bridges and high mast lighting (HML) poles depends heavily on visual assessments from experienced field inspectors. State agencies rely on these visual inspections to make key decisions about the health of structures–such as allocation of human resources and funds to maintain/repair structures—that significantly affect public safety and costs.

Visual inspections of HML structures often involve the use of binoculars, which is a time-consuming approach given that these structures require a 360-degree view. The use of heavy machinery during bridge inspections requires maintenance of traffic procedures that produce lengthy traffic interruptions. Many times, visual assessments require inspectors to be transported with construction equipment beneath bridges, or placed in very high-risk settings.

To assist structural inspectors during the inspection process, this research proposes the development of an unmanned aerial video data collection system. The system will consist of a small-scale unmanned aerial vehicle hosting a camera or small mobile device (e.g., cellular phone), and a ground viewing station (e.g., tablet PC or laptop) that will show near-real time images being captured by the camera attached to the unmanned aerial vehicle. This system will require a customized and complex data management server software package for storing and managing collected image data. It may also require customized mobile software for an onboard device and for remote viewing. The development of this advanced image data collection system, which will require a systems engineering approach that integrates the latest in software engineering and mobile technology, is divided into the following two major project stages:

- Stage 1: Conceptual system design and proof of concept

- Stage 2: System development and integration

The objective of this 24-month research project is to complete Stage 1, which involves extensive controlled experiments and field testing activities with an unmanned aerial vehicle. The completion of Stage 1 will lay the foundation to fully develop the system during Stage 2 by providing critical insights such as expected capabilities and limitations.