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New York Drone Partnership to Evaluate Highways, Bridges

New York's Thruway Authority has partnered with Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliances Inc. as part of an effort to inspect bridges using drones more effectively and efficiently.

Drone inspection
(TNS) — New York's Thruway Authority announced Monday Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance Inc., or NUAIR, will take part in a pilot program utilizing drones to assist with highway bridge inspections.

Headquartered in Syracuse, NUAIR manages operations at the New York UAS (unmanned aerial systems) Test Site at Griffiss International Airport in Rome.

State officials said the partnership will improve the effectiveness of bridge safety inspections, and the pilot program will come at no cost to the Thruway Authority.

"Using drone technology to inspect bridges, overpasses and infrastructure along our entire system is an imaginable game-changer," Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew J. Driscoll said in a statement. "Drones can provide views of hard-to-reach locations quickly and safely. This pilot program aligns with the Thruway's vision of maximizing technological innovation and continuing to improve infrastructure for the future."

If the program is successful following rigorous field testing and detailed evaluation, the Authority could expand the role of drones to assist with mapping and surveying the 570-mile superhighway system, cataloguing Thruway inventory and infrastructure, documenting damage and repairs, along with supporting general maintenance activities, according to a release on the pilot program.

Officials said Empire State Development grants are funding the pilot program, which is part of NUAIR's NYFLY initiative to help state agencies integrate drones into their daily operations to increase safety and help save time and money.

Bridge inspection currently primarily depends on visual and hands-on techniques to assess the condition of the structure, officials said. That often means relying on different types of equipment, ranging from ladders and scaffolding to man-lifts and under-bridge inspection vehicles, and even binoculars, officials said.

The Federal Highway Administration, according to the release, said drones can potentially be used to look at bridge components that are difficult to see, providing inspectors with information to determine if additional inspection is needed.

According to the state release, drones can additionally improve the bridge inspection process in several ways:

  • Improving safety for inspectors
  • Fewer lane closures for motorists reducing traffic impacts
  • Lowering overall inspection costs
  • Providing digital images and video

As part of Phase One of the pilot program, NUAIR is working with the Authority to determine the requirements to perform bridge inspections and associated data collection utilizing a drone, officials said.

The parties also will jointly develop operational and safety procedures for the bridge inspections.

Once the protocols are established, the two groups will collectively identify field testing sites along the Thruway's superhighway system. The results will be evaluated and used to determine if drones can be used safely and effectively on various bridges, interchanges and infrastructure.

Officials said field testing is expected to begin this fall and last through spring 2022. Authority officials will then evaluate and analyze the collected data in order to determine next steps.

"We are excited to help NYSTA integrate drones into their daily operations," NUAIR CEO Ken Stewart said in a statement. "Flying a drone to scan a bridge is a lot safer than the traditional means of using a snooper truck, both for the crew inspecting the bridge and for motorists. Couple that with faster, more cost-effective inspections, it's a win-win for the crew, the local economy and New York State as a whole."

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