AASHTO: Most state DOTs either using drones, studying idea

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State transportation departments nationwide have been implementing drones in their efforts to enhance safety, reduce traffic back-ups and save taxpayers money.

A recent survey conducted by researchers at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) found that 33 state departments of transportation are currently using, plan to use or are considering the use of drones in their transportation-improvement initiatives.

The Michigan State Department of Transportation (MDOT) recently launched a two-year study on uses for drones (also called unmanned aerial vehicles), which can help with aerial inspections of roads and bridges and help crews clear crashes with the benefit of overhead views of wreckage.

MDOT already has completed one drone study, and the department’s engineer of operations and maintenance, Steven Cook, said the UAVs have proven to be safe, dependable and cost-effective. MDOT has used them to monitor traffic flow and collect bridge-condition data, among other tasks.

"Our first study looked at the viability (of UAVs), and what we found out is that the unmanned aerial vehicle provided a mechanism to keep our workers out of harm's way," Cook said. "A traditional bridge inspection, for example, typically involves setting up work zones, detouring traffic and using heavy equipment. The UAV's can get in and get out quickly, capturing data in near real time and causing less distraction and inconvenience to drivers."

Cook said a traditional bridge-deck inspection would carry a price tag of around $4,600 for the necessary manpower and equipment – while a drone inspection can be done by half as many people in half the time and cost only $250.

Minnesota transportation officials are also considering drone use.

"We've been looking into drones for some time at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT)," Cassandra Isackson, director of aeronautics at MnDOT, said. "In addition to operating the highway system, MnDOT is in charge of aviation as well, so we've been looking at drones from the perspective of commercial operators, businesses, everyone out there using them. The highway side of MnDOT has been exploring them for potential cost savings for things like bridge inspections, surveying and aerial photography."

According to the AASHTO survey, transportation departments in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington "had studied or used drones," while DOTs in Alaska, Colorado, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and West Virginia "were either exploring drone usage, assisting in the development of drone polices or supporting drone research."

Any drone used by a state DOT must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Once a state applies for drone usage, it can take several months for the application to be approved.

Organizations in this Story

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials

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