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35 state transportation departments are deploying drones to save lives, time, and money.

A survey by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) finds that 35 of 44 responding state departments of transportation (80 percent) are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, for a wide range of purposes.

The March 2018 survey found that 20 state DOTs have incorporated drones into their daily operations. Another 15 state DOTs are in the research phase — testing drones to determine how they can be utilized. All state DOTs deploying drones follow FAA’s Part 107 Rule or the state DOT has received a public Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA to conduct drone operations.

All 20 of the state DOTs operating drones on a daily basis are deploying them to gather photos and videos of highway construction projects. In addition to photography, 14 states also reported using them for surveying, 12 for public education and outreach, 10 for bridge inspections, eight for emergency response, six for pavement inspections, five for scientific research, two for daily traffic control and monitoring, and one state DOT was using drones to conduct high-mast light pole inspections.

North Carolina was an early adopter of drone technology. In 2013 the state legislature designated NCDOT’s Division of Aviation to be the statewide authority for drone operations. Its UAS program aims to make drone technology available to DOT employees across the state.

“What we’re focusing on this spring is trying to get drones into the hands of employees in all 14 division offices in our state,” said Basil Yap, manager of NCDOT’s UAS Program. “We’re training our personnel and providing them with drones to meet their specific needs. By encouraging innovation from the ground up, our employees will help NCDOT discover new applications for drone technology.”

The AASHTO March 2018 survey found that 20 state DOTs — Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, and West Virginia — are all using drones in their daily operations.

Another 15 state DOTs — Alabama, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — are all researching how best to utilize drone technology. Nine states responding to the survey reported they are not deploying drones for research purposes or daily operations.

Of the 35 states deploying drones, 23 have established comprehensive drone policies that cover the acquisition, operation, airspace restrictions, and training and permitting of drones and drone pilots. Twenty-seven of the state DOTs reporting said they were adding full-time staff to operate and maintain their drone fleets.

Some experts predict that as more public and private organizations begin to deploy drones, the demand for drone pilots and other related expertise will grow, making it more difficult for state DOTS to attract qualified personnel.

“We already have local government agencies coming to us and asking for training and so we’ve partnered with our community college system to come up with a curriculum to train drone pilots,” Yap said. “We’re talking about making an economic development decision here because commercial drone package delivery is coming and state DOTs across the country need to play a role in developing the highways of the sky — especially in urban areas.”

ADOT gains drones through federal innovation program

The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) is adding drones to help its engineering staff safely and more efficiently inspect hard-to-reach areas on some bridges and perform surveying work along state highways. Through a federal innovative technology grant, ADOT has eight new aerial drones that will be part of the agency’s mission to enhance safety and efficiency while shortening highway project delivery time.

The grant to fund the drones is from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)-sponsored Arizona Council for Transportation Innovation program.

“We are committed to building a culture of innovation at ADOT to improve the safety and reliability of a statewide transportation system that millions of people depend on every day,” said ADOT Director John Halikowski.

The drones provide ADOT with an important tool for maintaining safe bridges.

“State highway bridge inspections will still be done by our inspectors, but as an example, a drone can help our teams safely get video or photos of places that are difficult to see.” said David Eberhart, ADOT state bridge engineer.

The drones will go into service later this year, after selected ADOT employees go through training in order to be certified as drone pilots.

“Drones will play a role in surveying areas near state highways where rock fall or ground movement are potential hazards,” said J.J. Liu, manager of geotechnical services for ADOT’s Bridge Group. “We’re focused on the safety of the traveling public in monitoring such locations. A drone can collect photos and other information across a larger survey area while helping to keep engineers or geologists out of harm’s way.”

In addition to the eight new drones, ADOT has already been using one drone since last year for a variety of purposes, including surveying a section of State Route 88 northeast of Apache Junction damaged by storm runoff last year. Drone video gathered by ADOT’s Engineering Surveys Section assisted agency staff in preparing for a repair project last fall.

The Arizona Council for Transportation Innovation this spring approved the use of $18,100 in federal funds and $4,525 in state matching funds for the new ADOT drones. The council was formed in 2012 as part of a FHWA program to implement innovative and efficient investments in transportation infrastructure.   


Information provided by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (www.transportation.org) and the Arizona Department of Transportation (www.azdot.gov). 

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