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North Carolina Uses Drones for Difficult Bridge Inspections

The federal government has approved a waiver to allow North Carolina to operate drones out of sight from the operator during bridge inspections, according to a release from the state’s Department of Transportation.

by Jeff Hampton, The Virginian-Pilot / October 6, 2020
A DJI Inspire 2 drone in flight. Shutterstock/Lukassek

(TNS) — Drones will be able to buzz around Outer Banks bridges in hard-to-see places thanks to a new federal ruling.

The Federal Aviation Administration approved a waiver Friday that allows North Carolina to operate drones out of sight from the operator during bridge inspections statewide, according to a release from the state’s Department of Transportation.

North Carolina is the first state to get the waiver, the release said.

The state has already been using drones regularly for its inspections since 2016, but only when they’ve been in sight of the pilot, which is federal law. Bridges must be inspected at least every two years.

Several high-traffic bridges span wide waterways in the Outer Banks. Strong currents and storms with winds full of sand and salt are harsh on the structures.

The new Basnight Bridge over Oregon Inlet has columns that rise 70 feet off the water, which are among the highest in the region. When its regular inspections begin, drones will be able to fly high for close looks at the support structures and bearings under the road bed, said Pablo Hernandez, the state engineer who oversaw construction of the span.

The state will use Skydio drones powered by on-board artificial intelligence that allows the craft to fly in hard-to-reach places and take high resolution photos even where the GPS signal is unreliable, the release said.

The inspections will go more quickly and traffic lanes will not have to be closed as long, Ben Spain, the state’s unmanned aircraft systems manager, said in the release.

Without drones for the out-of-sight spots, inspectors have been repelling over the side of bridges or riding the bucket of a “snooper” truck that sends a boom over the side and underneath, said highway department spokesman James Pearce.

©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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