Massachusetts DOT Explores Use of Drones for Infrastructure Inspections

The use of drones in this manner would limit safety hazards and could lighten congestion, but the ACLU wants clear guidelines on what they will be used for.

by Matt Stout, Boston Herald / December 16, 2015
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have become an option for inspecting power lines, bridges and other elements of infrastructure. Wikicommons

(TNS) -- The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is exploring the potential for flying drones under bridges, over airports and into tunnels to tackle time-consuming inspections, a tactic civil libertarians hailed as a “great use” of the controversial devices but one that still needs regulations.

Deploying drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, is still a relatively new move nationally by state transportation agencies, but MassDOT officials — now involved with a federal drone test site on Cape Cod — say they plan to “study ... the potential opportunities for drones in MassDOT work,” according to a report produced by their Aeronautics Division.

“Aeronautics could use the drones for inspection of the 36 public-use airports under the division’s purview, or for aircraft accident investigations,” the report states. “Other MassDOT divisions may consider drones for tasks such as highway bridge or transit tunnel inspections.”

The agency is also starting a “working group” to address potential state regulations on the use of drones, according to the report.

MassDOT did not make aeronautics administrator Jeff DeCarlo available yesterday. Spokesman Mike Verseckes said in a statement that “no policy decisions have been made at this time.” He also noted that the agency has played a “supporting role” in federal studies and talks about the “potential and safe applications of advancements in drone technology.”

Kade Crockford — director of the Massachusetts ACLU’s Technology for Liberty project — said MassDOT needs to develop specific rules, especially around the collecting of unintended data and any possible invasions of privacy.

“That sounds like a great use for a drone,” she said. “But as long as drones are unregulated, some people in the commonwealth might say, ‘What about my privacy?’?”

The Herald reported last spring that state police were soliciting proposals for a drone that can record and stream high-definition video for search-and-rescue missions and reconstructing car crashes. Spokesman David Procopio said yesterday the bid period closes today.

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