Drones Can Monitor And Maintain Roads And Bridges

There are an estimated 4 million miles of Roads And Bridges crisscrossing the United States and 170,000 railroad tracks, but how are they being monitored?

Several infrastructure industries can benefit from drone technology more quickly than others such as roads and bridges. Within these industries, companies can operate extensive networks of complex assets, distributed over vast areas.

Here are some of the types of infrastructure inspections:

  • Transmission and distribution (T&D) lines, to identify vegetation encroachment and wildfire fuels buildup, leaning power poles, sagging wires, snagged metallic balloons, equipment wear, vandalism, etc.
  • Bridges, tunnels, underpasses, overpasses and culverts, for cracks, wear, general conditions.
  • Roads and freeways, to assess cracking and maintenance needs of pavement.
  • Railroads, to check for wear, vegetation, rocks, and security on tracks, as well as conditions of bridges, poles, and yards.
  • Emergency, post-weather-event, and post-disaster damage assessments of all of the above.

The causes of accidents can vary from human error and weather conditions, to damaged structures and surfaces. Even though some of these accidents are beyond control, many other variables can be controlled.

The infrastructure industry as a whole has been slow in adopting drone technology even though drones have numerous applications for such a large and broad industry.

Our nation has been falling behind for the last 50 years in keeping up with maintaining our roads and bridges (including highways, railroads and tunnels). It is, of course, impossible to maintain infrastructure unless it is first inspected and monitored.

Inspection, Monitoring, Maintenance, Asset Inventory

In addition to monitoring traffic jams, accidents, etc., there is a serious need to inspect the condition of our highways, roads, bridges, railroads, and tunnels.The detection of faults can be very difficult to carry out manually, especially as early-forming cracks are hard to spot with the naked eye. This makes it difficult to be able to predict where faults are likely to occur ahead of time so that preventative measures can be taken in advance. As soon as a road is paved, a combination of traffic and weather conditions begin to degrade and erode the surface and undetected cracks, abrasions or defects can rapidly lead to bigger problems such as major traffic delays, traffic accidents, and an all-around unsafe condition.

When bridges are left unattended, cracks grow large enough to expose the underlying steel frame of the bridge itself. If the steel rusts, the strength is compromised. At that point rebuilding is the only option. Because concrete does not degrade quickly, it is a slow process and is, therefore, difficult to detect and predict potential places of damage in advance.

This desperate need for inspecting highways, roads, bridges, rail-roads, and tunnels can be done relatively easily with the right equipment such as drones with laser mapping ability where they can alert officials to traffic jams, accidents, etc. Is it possible that drones would be a safer way to go than workers going in and out of traffic and literally hanging off bridges?

There is no question that a large amount of our roads, bridges, railroads and tunnels need inspection and monitoring desperately, and once we know the structural issues, they can be repaired and then monitored and maintained. And maintenance requires that there is asset inventory so that when issues come up, they can quickly be addressed.


Whether these issues of safety are adequately addressed, can be a matter of life and death!

In any operations with drones, especially infrastructure inspection of highways, roads, bridges, railroads, and tunnels there are unforeseen potential problems. Concern for safety, therefore, must always be paramount. This is why many use Skyward’s airspace intelligence because it provides more awareness concerning various situations for the pilots.

The causes of accidents can vary from human error and weather conditions, to damaged structures and surfaces. Even though some of these accidents are beyond control, many other variables can be controlled.

For too long the infrastructure industry has depended on traditional approaches to their industry, that is, manual labor. In some cases, rope access, scaffolding and elevated platforms are necessary. Having workers climbing towers and on tops of roofs, etc. have caused numerous falls, which is the leading cause of death among construction workers. Inspectors also face danger when they come into contact with toxic chemicals or emissions, moving machinery, and speeding traffic.

Using helicopters to inspect pipelines, high-voltage equipment, transmission lines, and speeding traffic pose another risk and is also very expensive.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), however, help improve safety for workers since they don’t need to work at great height as often, and they also eliminate the risk for helicopter pilots (helicopter accidents are the most common in aviation) and tremendous cost for the company. In addition, drones can identify structural weaknesses more accurately and quickly than traditional, riskier methods.

It is true that some inspections are required by law to be performed by certified personnel, but in many cases they can be accomplished by drones.

Aerial robots make it possible for workers to survey, inspect, monitor, and sometimes even maintain, structures from the ground at a safe distance.


Because of the advances in image processing, companies can analyze data much faster and more accurately. Drones today can locate defects faster, more extensively, as well as, more cheaply and safely.

Drones minimize injuries and lost work hours. Medical insurance, workers compensation insurance, and liability insurance expenses can be reduced when safety records improve.


We know many U.S. bridges, dams, highways, energy, and water systems have exceeded their expected lifespans. But not everything is on the brink of collapse. However, the longer we wait, the more dangerous the situation becomes, and more expensive to repair.

Further expansion of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles will go a long way to resolve so many of the challenges that our traditional, outmoded methods have left us with. This can change relatively quickly, however, if we have the vision to embrace it.

The first flying 3D printer was already created in 2014. It is not outlandish, therefore, to anticipate that drones will go beyond diagnosing problems to repairing crumbling infrastructure such as roads, buildings, and bridges. With the combination of drone technology and 3D printing technology, repairing and maintaining infrastructure will become common.

By attaching 3D printers to drones, construction companies will be able to produce on-site replacement parts for damaged parts of infrastructure and perform at great height such as window cleaning and painting. With further progress with drones and 3D technology drones will be able to perform more intricate and sophisticated tasks inside buildings as well as on the outside.

The future for drone and 3D technology, and its dynamic combination, is exciting and infrastructure provides innumerable opportunities for such a combination.

To gain an optimum return on investment requires taking advantage of this leading edge of innovation.

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