Transportation planners lack a method to directly compare bridge and road conditions. In a new MnDOT-funded study, University of Minnesota researchers have proposed a Percent Remaining Service Interval (PRSI) measure that can uniformly assess the condition of bridges and pavements, enabling planners to make the most efficient use of preservation and improvement funding.
“Both the MnDOT Bridge Office and the Materials and Road Research Office have very good management systems in place,” says Mihai Marasteanu, a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering (CEGE) and the study’s principal investigator. “There is a good potential to develop a new common metric that both offices could use.”
What Did We Do?
To begin developing this new measure, researchers conducted a literature review of current methods used in asset management and life-cycle cost analysis. The review of bridge research focused on performance measures and life expectancy assessment methods, while the study of pavement literature concentrated on performance measures as well as on the use of road service life measures.
Next, the research team, which included civil engineering bridge professor Arturo Schultz, surveyed both bridge management staff and pavement management staff from state transportation agencies. Team members then analyzed the asset management practices of MnDOT’s Office of Bridges and Structures and Office of Materials and Road Research to identify methods for assessing service lives and rehabilitation needs and to highlight the similarities and differences in approaches.
Based on the findings from the survey and analysis, researchers suggested the new method of PRSI that would serve both pavement and bridge needs and offered guidelines for the next steps in developing and implementing a unified PRSI procedure.
“Ultimately, funds for guardrail repairs are drawn from the same purse that pays to fill a pothole or repair a deck joint,” Marasteanu says. “With PRSI, planners could target average values across systems to optimize life-cycle costs and pursue an even distribution of PRSI values to make planning consistent from year to year.”
In the next phase of the project, researchers will work with the pavement office to identify relevant data for calculating PRSI for pavements. “In addition, we plan to identify the time and costs required to reach the evenly distributed configuration of PRSIs necessary for planning consistency, assess how preservation activities impact funding efficiency, and calculate recommended metrics for asset sustainability,” Marasteanu says.
Researchers provided recommendations and general guidance to assist MnDOT in developing cost-effective strategies for future investigation and repair contracts of post-tensioned bridges built in Minnesota before 2003. To develop these recommendations, researchers identified grout voids in post-tensioning ducts on two representative bridges, documented strand corrosion and repaired voids by filling them with grout.
“With the guidelines developed in this project, we have a good basis for cost-effectively and efficiently inspecting post-tensioned bridges built before 2003,” said Dustin Thomas, South Region Bridge Construction Engineer, MnDOT Bridge Office.
“From a fiscal perspective, it makes sense to do limited inspections on these bridges before committing additional resources to more comprehensive inspection and repair,” said Mark Chauvin, Associate Principal and Unit Manager at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.
What Was the Need?
Some concrete bridges in the United States are strengthened using post-tensioning—a method of reinforcing concrete by running steel strands through a hollow plastic or metal duct placed within the concrete element. Tension is then applied to these strands with a hydraulic jack, com-pressing the concrete and creating internal stresses that resist external traffic loads. Post-tensioning improves the durability of concrete and virtually eliminates cracking.
Post-tensioning ducts are filled with grout—a mixture of cement, sand and water that hardens around the steel strands. This practice prevents the strands from corroding if they are exposed to air, water and deicing chemicals.
Grouting materials used in bridges built before 2003 frequently produced voids where grout did not fully fill the post-tensioning ducts or cover the strands. These post-tensioning strands were vulnerable to corrosion, which can lead to deterioration in bridge elements over time. Once transportation agencies and the industry became aware of these issues, they improved their construction practices and began using prepackaged grout materials with additives so that the post-tensioning ducts would be completely filled.
About 40 post-tensioned bridges were built in Minnesota before 2003 that might still require repair. MnDOT commissioned a two-phase project to develop techniques for evaluating these structures. In the first phase of the project, completed in 2012, researchers inspected a representative sample of these bridges and developed a general inspection protocol to guide future investigations. In the second phase, described here, researchers developed additional guidance about grout repairs, as well as the most cost-effective contracting methods for such repairs.
What Was Our Goal?
The goal of the second phase of this project was to provide recommendations and general guidance that MnDOT could use to develop cost-effective strategies for future investigation and repair of post-tensioned bridges built in Minnesota before 2003. As part of this project, researchers identified grout voids in post-tensioning ducts on two representative bridges, documented strand corrosion and repaired voids by filling them with grout.
What Did We Do?
In 2013, researchers inspected three spans on two Minnesota bridges for voids around post-tensioning strands. They began the project by using ground penetrating radar to map the location of the ducts. Once the ducts were located and mapped, researchers used a borescope to visually inspect the duct interiors at locations where voids were likely to be present. When they found voids, they documented the percentage of the duct filled by grout and the extent of corrosion in the post-tensioning strands within the ducts, if any. Following inspection, researchers filled the voids with grout and installed sensors within the voids at two locations to monitor the long-term corrosion of post-tensioning strands.
Using their experience with these repairs, researchers then created guidelines that would help MnDOT develop cost-effective strategies that can be implemented in future post-tensioning duct investigation and repair contracts.
What Did We Learn?
Researchers found voids in 32 percent of inspected ducts. These voids were typically at least 10 feet long and about one-half the diameter of the duct. Although prestressing steel strands were exposed at approximately half of the grout voids, no significant corrosion of the strands was observed at any location. Light to moderate corrosion was usually observed on the inside surfaces of the galvanized metal ducts at grout voids.
The guidelines developed by researchers address:
Typical work plans for investigation and repair, including considerations for bridge access and traffic maintenance during inspection and repair.
Document review, including bridge design drawings and post-tensioning shop drawings.
Visual surveys to identify signs of distress near post-tensioning ducts.
Procedures for borescope inspection and remedial grouting repair.
Various contract and project approaches for developing specialized inspection and re-medial repair contracts, with a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Using multiple contracts with graduated levels of inspection and repair will most likely provide MnDOT with the best value.
Planning-level cost information for seven representative pre-2003 post-tensioning bridges identified by MnDOT to assist in future budget calculations.
The guidelines developed in this project will provide MnDOT with a framework to solicit and procure similar engineering and construction services contracts for post-tensioning bridges in Minnesota. Researchers recommend exploring additional techniques to more rapidly assess and inspect post-tensioned bridges, including noninvasive investigative methods that do not require drilling holes.
“Phase 3 will allow us to utilize a new drone specific to confined space inspections,” Wells said. “This new drone is meant to reach places the prior drones could not, which will supplement our efforts nicely. Also, Phase 3 will include more bridge inspections in order to get a more comprehensive feel for cost and time savings.”
The increasing costs of bridge inspections are a concern for MnDOT. The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has been shown to reduce costs, improve the quality of bridge inspections, and increase safety. The UAS can deploy a wide range of imaging technologies including high definition still, video, and infrared sensors, and data can be analyzed using 3D imaging software.
MnDOT completed a small research project in 2015 to study the effectiveness of UAS technology applied to bridge safety inspections. The project team inspected four bridges at various locations throughout Minnesota and evaluated UAS’ effectiveness in improving inspection quality and inspector safety based on field results.
A second research effort demonstrated UAS imaging on the Blatnik Bridge and investigated UAS use for infrared deck surveys. Additionally, a best practices document was created to identify bridges that are best suited for UAS inspection.
It is the goal, based on this next phase of research, to implement a statewide UAS bridge inspection plan, which will identify overall cost effectiveness, improvements in quality and safety, and future funding sources for both state and local bridges.
Collins Engineering will also investigate a collision tolerant drone — the Flyability Elios — for confined space inspections.
As part of the Phase 3 project, Collins Engineering will:
Review current Federal Aviation (FAA) rules, technical literature, owners and industry experiences, and ongoing UAS research.
Develop bridge inspection list based on Phase II research regarding best practices. Approximately 20-25 bridges will be inspected under this contract depending on location and size.
Develop a field work plan for the bridge inspection list. If approvals for these bridges cannot be obtained, suitable alternatives will be chosen. This field work plan will address safety concerns, FAA, and other agency requirements.
Establish a work schedule and deliverable submission schedule.
Establish methods of access and schedule equipment.
Receive training on the Flyability collision tolerant drone for use in the study.
Perform field work at the selected bridges to collect imagery and evaluate the technology to accomplish the project goals.
Inspect known deficiencies identified during previous inspections with the use of the UAS to evaluate the ability to identify deficiencies using photos and video.
Enter bridge inspection data in Minnesota’s Structure Information Management System (SIMS) providing element condition ratings, photos, videos, etc. based on UAS imagery and information.
Prepare a draft report to document project activities, findings and recommendations.
The Phase 3 project is scheduled to be complete by July 2018.
MnDOT’s efforts to study whether drones can help bridge inspectors are progressing, and the second phase project has been completed. (Meanwhile, a third project has just begun.)
Phase 1 of this research project demonstrated that drones can reduce safety risks and inconvenience to bridge inspectors and the traveling public. Phase 2 shows that new drones, designed with vertical and horizontal camera and sensor capabilities for structure inspections, give bridge inspectors safe access to under-deck areas that were previously difficult or impossible to reach. The new drones cost even less than the unit tested in Phase 1.
“Using a drone rather than snoopers for bridge inspection can save significant time and cost. The FHWA approves of this use as well. It’s another tool for inspectors to employ,” said Jennifer Wells, Principal Engineer on Mobility, MnDOT Office of Bridges and Structures.
“We were one of the first transportation agencies and contractors to test and use this new technology for bridge inspections. Drones let bridge inspectors collect more data and collect it more safely and efficiently,” said Barritt Lovelace, Regional Manager, Collins Engineers, Inc.
What Was the Need?
MnDOT and local bridge owners have 600 bridge inspectors who monitor more than 20,000 bridges in Minnesota. Each bridge must be inspected once every 24 months. Bridges in poor condition and those considered fracture-critical (where failure of a single component could cause collapse) must be inspected every 12 months. Large bridges can take weeks to fully inspect and often require inspectors to dangle from ropes or stand in buckets on the end of “snoopers,” cranes that reach from the bridge deck to below-deck level to put inspectors within sight of under-deck elements.
Snoopers are expensive and require traffic lane closures, presenting safety risks to the traveling public and inspectors. MnDOT established in a Phase 1 study that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) significantly augment inspection findings with infrared and imaging data while reducing safety risks to inspectors and the public. The project earned a 2016 Minnesota State Government Innovation Award as well as awards and recognition from such groups as the American Public Works Association.
UAS designed specifically for structure inspections were unavailable during Phase 1. The UAS used in that phase had key operational limitations, including the inability to proceed when concrete and steel bridge components blocked Global Positioning System (GPS) signals. When that happened, the drone simply returned to base automatically.
What Was Our Goal?
In Phase 2, MnDOT wanted to test the use of an upgraded UAS to examine larger and more challenging bridges. The new UAS, which was specially designed for structure inspections, featured more robust imaging and infrared data-gathering capabilities, and was more flexible to control. Its operational capabilities also were not diminished by the loss of GPS signals. Results from UAS inspections and traditional bridge inspection methods would be compared for quality and cost-effectiveness.
What Did We Do?
Investigators selected a prototype senseFly albris UAS to inspect four bridges:
The Blatnik Bridge over the St. Louis River between Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, a 7,980-foot-long steel through-arch bridge with steel deck trusses.
A 362-foot-long two-span steel high truss bridge over the Red River in Nielsville, Minnesota.
A 263-foot-long corrugated steel culvert in St. Paul.
The Stillwater Lift Bridge, a 10-span structure over the St. Croix River with six steel through-truss spans and one movable span.
For each bridge or structure, researchers prepared detailed safety and inspection plans to identify and mitigate potential hazards, inspection needs and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements. Researchers conducted and evaluated UAS and standard inspection methods for each inspection site, analyzing results in terms of access technique, data collection and usefulness for interim and special inspections.
What Did We Learn?
The senseFly albris UAS offered a clear operational upgrade over the Phase 1 unit. It can operate without GPS; the camera lens can turn up and down at 90-degree angles; and protective shrouds and ultrasonic sensors prevent the propellers from striking bridge elements.
For some inspection functions, lane closures can be curtailed or eliminated altogether. The drone worked well in the high, confined spaces of the Blatnik Bridge and should provide under-deck inspection details otherwise unavailable or too costly for any tall bridge in the MnDOT system. This UAS identifies and measures clearances, rope access anchor points and other pre-inspection conditions for planning large-scale or emergency inspections. Photogrammetry software can be used with the UAS to develop three-dimensional models of bridges and bridge sites. Using infrared thermal sensors, the UAS can detect delamination of concrete while flying adjacent to lanes of traffic. For smaller, confined spaces on bridges and culverts, the senseFly albris may not be ideal. Despite its protective shrouds, it is not as collision-tolerant as needed for very tight spaces.
Currently no UAS replicates hands-on inspection functions like cleaning, sounding, measuring and tactile testing. But the UAS is an additional tool that provides conventional and improved data safely. The FAA and the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics no longer require private pilot certification for drone operators. A new, streamlined certification and licensing procedure makes drone use more practical.
Costs were significantly lower with UAS inspections than with conventional approaches. Conventional inspection of the Blatnik Bridge would have required four snoopers, an 80-foot lift and eight days of inspection, at a cost of about $59,000 (without the cost of mobilizing equipment and traveling). The UAS Blatnik Bridge inspection would contract as a five-day, $20,000 project.
Phase 3, which began in the summer of 2017, uses the senseFly albris and the Flyability Elios, a collision-tolerant drone more suited to confined spaces such as box girders or culverts. During this phase, researchers will identify which situations are best suited for drone use, what parameters should govern drone use in bridge inspections, and how UAS can be integrated into standard inspection operations at a county and district level.
The research project will help the State of Minnesota’s Bridge Office develop a guidance document and a tool for bridge construction time estimation to be used by MnDOT District project managers and construction staff. The tool will provide a range of production rates based on specific design criteria, being more concise based on the level of information available and will aid in evaluating the potential benefit for accelerated bridge construction (ABC) techniques.
“This research will enable District project managers, who may not have bridge knowledge or background, to complete project planning and scoping more effectively,” said Paul Johns of MnDOT’s Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting.
Mike Rief of WSB & Associates will serve as the project’s principal investigator. Johns will serve as technical liaison.
According to the initial work plan, the project is scheduled to be completed by early March 2018, and WSB & Associates will complete the following tasks:
Conduct an existing practices literature review of current departments of transportation processes around the United States for bridge time and cost estimation.
Review and compile actual case study bridge construction production rates and cost data for major bridge components from state-provided diaries, schedules and bridge plans.
Evaluate and select the best software format and style for a bridge construction time estimation tool. Load state case study production rate data into estimation tool and run validation using bridges currently under construction.
Produce a research report summarizing the literature review on best practices. Produce a user guide for bridge time estimation tool and training presentation.
An optional task, if the budget allows, will include the development of a cost estimating tool. Cost estimation data would be gathered from the literature review and case study analysis during the development of bridge construction time estimation tool for efficiency.
Many local agencies in Minnesota lack funding to construct and maintain all the bridges in their roadway network. One way to lower costs is to reduce the number of bridges.
In Minnesota, some township bridges are on roads with low usage that have alternative accesses for nearby residents, but local officials are reluctant to remove the bridges.
To identify possible changes to how redundant and low-use bridges are identified and removed in Minnesota, the Local Road Research Board conducted a transportation research synthesis, “Local Bridge Removal Policies and Programs,” that explores how other states make bridge removal decisions.
Fifteen state DOTs responded to a survey about their processes, with varying levels of state oversight identified for bridge removal decisions. Researchers also examined funding and incentives offered by some DOTs to local agencies for bridge removal, as well as criteria for considering bridge removal.
A literature search of bridge design manuals, inspection manuals and bridge programs was also conducted to identify related policies and programs.
Read the TRS to learn more about the various bridge removal policies and procedures in place in Minnesota and other states.
By analyzing vibration data from the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge, MnDOT is working to develop monitoring systems that could detect structural defects early on and ultimately allow engineers to improve bridge designs.
“With data spanning several years, the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge offers a unique opportunity for investigating the environmental effects on a new concrete bridge in a location with weather extremes,” said Lauren Linderman, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering. Linderman served as the research project’s principal investigator.
“This project gets MnDOT closer to using bridge monitoring systems in combination with visual inspection to help detect structural problems before they affect safety or require expensive repairs,” said Benjamin Jilk, Principal Engineer, MnDOT Bridge Office. Jilk served as the research project’s technical liaison.
What Was the Need?
In September 2008, the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge was constructed to include a “smart bridge” electronic monitoring system. This system includes more than 500 sensors that continuously provide data on how the concrete structure bends and deforms in response to traffic loads, wind and temperature changes. Transportation agencies are increasingly interested in such systems. As a complement to regular inspections, they can help detect problems early on, before the problems require expensive repairs or lead to catastrophic failure. Smart bridge systems can also help engineers improve future bridge designs.
The smart bridge system on the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge includes accelerometers, which provide data on the way the bridge vibrates in response to various stimuli, including structural damage. Vibration-based monitoring has the advantage of allowing damage to be detected at any location within the bridge rather than only at the specific locations where measuring devices have been placed.
However, it can be difficult to use vibration monitoring to detect damage when vibration is masked by the bridge’s natural response to traffic loads, wind, temperature changes and other environmental conditions. A crack in a bridge girder, for example, can produce a vibration signature similar to one produced by a change in beam length due to variations in temperature or other causes. Consequently, since 2008 MnDOT has conducted a series of projects using data from the St. Anthony Falls Bridge to establish a way to distinguish anomalous data indicating a structural defect or damage from background “noise” associated with other causes.
What Was Our Goal?
This project sought to develop a method for analyzing accelerometer data from the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge that would show how the bridge naturally vibrates due to traffic, wind and other environmental conditions. With this fingerprint of the bridge’s natural vibration, engineers would have a baseline against which to measure anomalies in the data that might indicate structural damage.
What Did We Do?
A large amount of data has been collected from the bridge since its construction. To establish the vibratory fingerprint for the bridge, researchers examined the frequencies and shapes (or modes) of bridge vibration waves. The method they used to identify the data segments needed for the fingerprint was to evaluate the peak amplitude of bridge vibration waves and their root mean square (RMS), a measure of the intensity of free vibration.
The researchers applied this method to the vibration data collected on the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge between April 2010 and July 2015, calculating the average frequencies for four wave modes and determining how they varied with the bridge’s temperature. They also calculated the way frequencies changed with the bridge’s thermal gradients, or variations in temperature between parts of the structure.
What Did We Learn?
The methods developed in this project were successful in establishing a fingerprint for the way the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge vibrates due to environmental conditions, and a way to evaluate changes in vibration over time indicative of structural damage or other factors.
Researchers found that the ratio of peak signal amplitude to RMS in bridge vibrations was a strong indicator of data that should be analyzed, and was evidence of a large excitation followed by free vibration. By themselves, peak amplitude and RMS cannot distinguish between ambient free vibration and forced vibration.
Researchers were able to use this method to successfully analyze 29,333 data segments from the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge. This analysis revealed that as temperature increases, the natural frequency of vibration tends to decrease. The magnitude of this change, they concluded, must be related not just to the elasticity of the bridge but also to other factors such as humidity. However, temperature gradients within the bridge did not appear to have a significant effect on the natural frequencies of the structure.
MnDOT will continue to collect data from the bridge as it ages to further understand its behavior. This will provide an opportunity to determine how anomalies in vibration data correspond to cracking and other forms of structural distress. Ultimately, MnDOT hopes to use this bridge monitoring system in combination with visual inspection both to detect problems in bridges earlier and to develop better bridge designs. Researchers are also currently working on a follow-up project, Displacement Monitoring of I-35W Bridge with Current Vibration-Based System, to determine the effects of temperature on the bridge’s dynamic and long-term vertical displacements, which can be used to monitor the bridge’s stiffness, connections and foundations.
MnDOT is exploring the development of freeway “lids” at key locations on I-94 in the Twin Cities. To analyze the potential for private-sector investment and determine what steps might be needed to make lid projects a reality, MnDOT invited the Urban Land Institute (ULI) MN to conduct a Technical Assistance Panel with real estate experts and other specialists. The U’s Metropolitan Design Center (MDC) provided background and research for the panel.
A lid, also known as a cap or land bridge, is a structure built over a freeway trench to connect areas on either side. Lids may also support green space and development above the roadway and along adjacent embankments. Although lidding is not a new concept, it is gaining national attention as a way to restore communities damaged when freeways were first built in the 1960s.
According to MnDOT, roughly half of the 145 bridges on I-94 between the east side of Saint Paul and the north side of Minneapolis need work within the next 15 years. A shorter window applies in the area around the capitol to as far west as MN-280. In anticipation of the effort to rebuild so much infrastructure, the department wanted a deeper understanding of how attractive freeway lids and their surrounding areas would be to private developers and whether the investment they would attract would generate sufficient revenue to pay for them.
The three-day panel session was designed to consider the I-94 corridor and study three specific areas: the I-35W/Minneapolis Central Business District, historic Rondo Avenue in Saint Paul, and Fairview Park in North Minneapolis. It also included a “lightning round” for high-level observations of five other sites.
Mic Johnson, senior fellow with MDC, provided background about lidding and shared successful examples from around the country at the panel kick-off dinner. MDC has analyzed a wide range of freeway lid structures and identified seven basic lid typologies. “These typologies provide broad thematic guidance for thinking about what features best serve a location,” Johnson says.
The briefing book provided to panelists included detailed research by MDC about the economic opportunities of the area’s freeway lids. MDC also created four appendices (projects, case studies, prototypical lid diagrams, and health and economic value) for the panel final report.
MDC has been involved in lid-related activities for several years. Students participating in an Urban Design Studio course in fall 2013 taught by Johnson conducted an extensive analysis of the I-35W/Minneapolis area and created an architectural model of a lid connecting the U of M’s West Bank to Downtown East. Their model was displayed at the IDS Center.
MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle requested that ULI MN convene the panel as part of the larger “Rethinking I-94” project, which is developing a vision for the corridor through a comprehensive public involvement process. “Lid projects are one way being considered that could reconnect neighborhoods such as Rondo that were divided by freeways in the 1960s,” Zelle says. The Rondo neighborhood was also featured in the USDOT’s Every Place Counts Design Challenge in July.
As part of its report to MnDOT, the panel concluded that private-sector development would not pay for the lids directly, but lids would create development interest that could generate significant long-term revenue to pay for lid maintenance, programming, and other amenities.
To build momentum and create an identity for lid projects, the panel also recommended that the area’s lids be considered as a whole under a single banner, not as separate projects, as part of a rebranded vision called the Healthy Communities Initiative. The final report is available on the ULI MN website.
In the video, Jennifer Zink, MnDOT state bridge inspection engineer, explains the project, along with Tara Kalar, MnDOT associate legal counsel; Cassandra Isackson, director of MnDOT Aeronautics; and Bruce Holdhusen, MnDOT Research program engineer.
The initial drone project drew significant media coverage and a lot of attention from other state departments of transportation from all over the country.
As the flying electronic devices became easier to use and less expensive, all sorts of individuals, businesses, nonprofit groups and government organizations – including the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) – are exploring ways to use them.
This past summer, MnDOT began researching how to employ these unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to someday help inspect the state’s many bridges.
“That day may still be far off, but our initial project was an encouraging first step,” said Jennifer Zink, MnDOT bridge inspection engineer. “Phase 2 of the project will better provide details as to methods, criteria and cost effectiveness for how to apply drone technology best to bridge inspection.”
The research team tested drones this past summer while inspecting four Minnesota bridges (in Chisago County, Olmsted County, Morrison County and near Stillwater) specifically selected for the study after an extensive evaluation and FAA approval.
Zink and her colleagues wanted to investigate whether drones could help MnDOT decrease the rising costs of bridge inspections and collect more detailed information. Drones could also minimize the risks for bridge inspectors, who currently use rope systems and special inspection vehicles to access hard-to-reach areas. Using a drone to gather images could keep inspectors out of harm’s way and inspection vehicles out of active traffic lanes.
“The goal of the project was to study the effectiveness and possibilities of using UAVs to aid in bridge inspection work, typically in gathering images without the use of an under-bridge inspection vehicle and in areas where access is difficult or not safe for an inspector,” Zink said. “There is no substantive guidance in existence for this application of this evolving technology. This initial effort was to gain a better understanding of potential capabilities, processes and planning best practices.”
Before simply launching drones and collecting bridge data, the research team reviewed current FAA rules and applied for the necessary exemptions. Approval was granted, but only for the use of an Aeryon Skyranger drone. Even though exemptions for several models were submitted to the FAA, none were approved in time for the field study.
Once in the air, the drone suitably performed a variety of inspection functions that didn’t require a hands-on physical inspection. Researchers tested the drone’s ability to gather high-quality still images and video footage of bridges. They also collected data from infrared cameras. In addition, the drone provided the ability to capture data needed to construct maps of bridge areas and 3D models of bridge elements.
“The images, including infrared images to detect deck trouble spots, obtained from the drone correlate to the findings in the bridge inspection reports for specific bridge elements,” Zink said.
Missing from the research were images of the underside of bridges. The drone model used in the study wasn’t able to shoot images upward from beneath a bridge, and inspectors identified that as a key feature along with the ability to operate without a GPS signal.
“The drone we used in this project was not completely ideal for an entire gathering of imagery for all bridge inspection elements as it was limited to GPS signal capability,” Zink said. “However, it did give us an idea of what a drone could provide, what the limitations were, and what features we would like to see on newly available UAV models. Unfortunately, our hands were tied with obtaining FAA exemptions only for the particular model used in this project within the funding timeframe.”
Conclusions and recommendations
The project’s final report listed several conclusions, including that drones can be used safely during bridge inspections and that risk to both the inspectors and public is minimal.
“Due to the successful outcome of the initial project, we have a better understanding of the drone capabilities we would like to use during an actual scheduled bridge inspection,” Zink said. “The drone that will be used in Phase 2 is specifically designed for inspection of structures. Several goals exist for the Phase 2 research project, and if we can accomplish them, they will decrease MnDOT’s costs and increase bridge inspection abilities. It could improve inspection data collection for local agencies as well.”
The researchers recently were notified that they received funding for Phase 2 of their project, which is expected to start later this fall.