Drones could inspect bridges in Florida, saving divers from snakes and currents

By Mary Ebeling

Florida DOT is working with a team at Florida Atlantic University College of Engineering and Computer Science to develop autonomous, waterborne drone vehicles to aid in bridge inspections. The National Bridge Inspection Standards requires publicly-owned bridges greater than 20 feet in length to be inspected every two years to evaluate their safety and condition and to identify needed repairs.

Successful development of this technology could improve bridge inspection practice. Using drones to identify problem areas and conduct initial checks on the bridge means increased safety and efficiency for divers and less time in the water.

“If you’re going to send divers out into strong currents with nasty snakes and stuff, it’s better to have a good sense there’s a problem before you do that,” said FAU professor and principal investigator Karl von Ellenrieder.

Currently, divers are the sole method FDOT has to conduct biennial bridge inspections for the state’s 11,451 bridges. “These sorts of technologies aren’t really meant to replace wholesale divers and so forth,” von Ellenrieder said. “It’s to make their jobs easier, and it’s another tool that can help them do their jobs better. A vehicle like this would allow you to more rapidly scan bridges, and then when you detect a problem, send out a diver to verify the problem.”

Researchers at FAU are using an $187,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation to develop the waterborne drone. It is designed with a sophisticated propulsion system that allows it to maintain its position during a bridge scan. The drone also will have “an acoustic scanning system that functions similar to a LIDAR system. By installing the scanner on a mount that can tilt and pan, researchers expect to obtain 3-D models of the parts of the bridge that are under water. Completion of the acoustic scanner is scheduled for September. Once outfitted with the scanner, the research team will test the drone’s capabilities on three bridges recommended by FDOT.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.