Connecticut DOT Tests UAV on Gold Star Bridge

The state Department of Transportation wants to see if the new technology could assist with bridge inspections.

by Kimberly Drelich, The Day, New London, Conn. / August 24, 2016
Beneath the Gold Star Memorial Bridge Flickr/Almond Butterscotch Photography

(TNS) — New London — As cars zoomed across the twin spans of Gold Star Memorial Bridge on Tuesday afternoon, a group of engineers and aviation experts gathered underneath the bridge to operate a vehicle of an entirely different sort.

Dressed in yellow vests and white construction hats, they ran through a safety checklist for the launch of an unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone, that the state Department of Transportation was testing for the first time on Tuesday.

DOT wants to see if the new technology could assist with bridge inspections.

"Check, we're ready here. Go ahead," an operator said, signaling to a pilot stationed in a nearby field to begin takeoff.

The UAV ascended and recorded high-definition video and photos of a column on the northbound side of the bridge and the structure's bearings, among other features, which would be analyzed later by engineers.

"This is new technology," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. "We want to gauge its capabilities and use that in comparison to data that we already have from conventional inspections."

The DOT will compare the photos and videos taken by the UAV to a conventional inspection of the Gold Star, which last took place in the fall of 2015, he said.

The DOT is assessing how quickly a UAV could be deployed and how effectively it could access areas underneath the bridge, Nursick said.

If the technology is successful, DOT could use the vehicle as a tool to improve bridge inspections, but it would not replace conventional inspections or humans, he said.

The Gold Star Memorial Bridge, each span a mile long, is a "perfect example" of a bridge that can be tough to access for inspections, particularly on short notice, Nursick said.

A routine bridge inspection, required every two years, takes three months to complete. An inspection typically requires 70-foot snooper trucks, police to be on scene and possibly lane closures.

The UAV could be useful in situations when DOT wants to more frequently inspect an aspect of a bridge, such as a component that is rusting, Nursick pointed out. DOT potentially could dispatch a UAV for a quick inspection that would not require lane closures or the renting of snooper trucks.

The cost of the day of tests, which DOT conducted Tuesday near the Thames River Boat Launch, was approximately $10,000, Nursick said.

The UAV, equipped with GPS technology, can self-pilot and land safely if the pilot ever lost communication with the device, he said.

Tuesday's mission required a pilot to fly the vehicle, as well as someone to operate the camera and zoom in on particular aspects of the bridge, said Tom Tilson, the chief pilot for Exponent Technology Services who was operating the camera.

The pilot receives assistance from a monitor with flight parameters, but mostly operates visually, with the help of a visual observer and the camera operator, he said.

Representatives from AI Engineers Inc. of Middletown, consultants to DOT for bridge inspections, participated during the tests and will analyze the results.

If DOT moves forward with UAVs in the future, Nursick said they would be particularly useful in inspecting certain bridges, such as the William H. Putnam Memorial Bridge over the Connecticut River and the Q Bridge, in addition to the Gold Star, that are tough to access.

Nursick said Tuesday that DOT has not yet made any decisions on whether or not to use the technology.

"We had a very good experience here today," he said. "We're already seeing what some of the benefits could be, but we want to take everything back and do a full assessment before making a judgment call on whether or not this is a tool to put into the toolbox."

©2016 The Day (New London, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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