Eyes in the sky keep bridges safe

  Last updated December 18, 2019 at 2:07 pm

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Drones could be used to carry out faster, cheaper and safer bridge inspections.


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Drones are already being used for bridge inspections in the United States. Credit: Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images




Why This Matters: Why send a human in when a drone can do it instead?




Australia has approximately 50,000 bridges that need to visually assessed every two years – it’s a huge job.


Now, researchers from the Western Sydney University have shown that drones could take on some of the burden.


Bridge management researcher, Maria Rashidi from the Centre for Infrastructure Engineering and her team have partnered with Roads and Maritime Services New South Wales to test drone technology for visual bridge inspections.


They have shown that drones can be faster, cheaper, safer, and more reliable than manual inspections.


Drones are faster and cheaper than conventional inspection


Rashidi has focussed on bridge management since her PhD and she says caring for this essential element of transport infrastructure is a big task.


“More than 80% of Australia’s bridges were built before 1976, and require routine visual inspection every two years to ascertain proper performance,” Rashidi says.




Also: Making Unmanned Aircraft Systems Smart




To see if drones could help, the team used a professional-specification drone with triple-redundancy safety systems for battery and rotors to capture images of four bridges from multiple angles.


For large bridges, drones were generally faster and cheaper than conventional inspection, the pilot study showed.


They also offer a reduced risk to bridge crew, allowing a bridge to be visually inspected without the need for inspectors to walk across the deck.


Drones also eliminate the need for under-bridge inspection units.


Artifical intelligence and machine learning to enhance accuracy


The results have encouraged Roads and Maritime Services New South Wales engineer, Houman Hatamian.


“Drones are particularly useful in cases where access puts bridge inspectors at risk, or conventional access methods are prohibitively costly, or require traffic control that may affect commuters,” he says.


Rashidi, Hatamian, and the team are now collaborating on the second phase of the research project, testing artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches to enhance the accuracy of data collected.


“Since the first pilot project, we have been approached by different agencies and transportation authorities for drone projects,” Rashidi says.


The team also recently began using their expertise to help with the conservation of heritage bridges, she adds.


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