Drones have proven to be incredibly useful when it comes to inspections. Drones can offer inspectors critical views without putting workers at risk. Their ease of use and low costs mean that drones can be made available to almost any inspection crew. Using drones as inspections devices can also save tremendous time for companies. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials conducted a study that revealed using drones for inspection tools could reduce costs from 40%-75%.
In a matter of minutes, a drone operator can send a drone up to inspect power lines, road overpasses, bridges, buildings, and more. The drone’s camera provides the inspectors below with live footage to spot any immediate issues in need of attention. All of the footage collected by the drone is also wirelessly transmitted to a database for further inspection, creating an inspection catalog. Inspectors can stay safely on the ground, moving from one inspection point to another. While the benefits of using drones for inspections are numerous, there are some drawbacks.
Though drones can provide access to hard to reach places, the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) has set forth regulations that drone pilots must maintain visual contact with the drone at all times. For many drone operations, whether commercial or recreational, this doesn’t hinder the pilot. When drones are being used for inspection missions, being able to fly them BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) can open up greater opportunities. Inspectors often find themselves in positions that the structure in question has blind spots, areas the pilot on the ground would not be able to see the drone in the sky. Inspectors also have to be able to use the drone over multiple points of interest. To keep the drone within line of sight this means having to pack up the drone, move to a new spot, and then resume, a time consuming practice.
At the beginning of October 2020, the FAA granted the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) a first of its kind waiver that would allow bridge inspectors to fly drone missions BVLOS. Making this possible is a collaboration between NCDOT and Skydio, the leading drone manufacturer for the United States of America. The San Mateo, California based company states, “We design, assemble, and support our products in the U.S. We develop our software in-house and source our processors from U.S. companies. That enables us to provide a high level of supply chain security and serve as a trusted partner to government customers.”
Skydio has several drones that are all compatible with their Skydio Autonomy operating system. This AI system allows drones to fly safely in any environment using 360° obstacle avoidance, even when out of line of sight and GPS is not available. Using situational awareness cameras, Skydio Autonomy builds instant 3D maps combined with deep learning algorithms so a drone can understand its surroundings in real time. The Skydio 2 is a less than $1,000 drone similar to DJI’s Mavic drones, great for recreational and photography. For inspections, the Skydio X2 is an all in one tool that uses HD thermal, color, day or night cameras. The X2 operates off the Skydio Autonomy AI operating system for complete situational awareness for pilots of any degree of experience.
The FAA has such confidence in the capabilities of Skydio’s drones and AI system that the BVLOS waiver they have granted to the NCDOT will be a blanket waiver for all of the state’s bridges over the next 4 years. North Carolina has 13,500 bridges that need to be constantly inspected to ensure their integrity. Traditionally inspectors would have to use suspension cables to hang below or along a bridge and manually inspect the entire structure. With a drone, they can inspect every inch of a bridge rapidly and safely at a fraction of the cost. With the BVLOS waiver, NCDOT inspectors will even be able to inspect blind areas of a bridge, like an underside. The requirements call for the bridge to be temporarily closed during the inspection, just as it would have to be for manual inspections. However, with the speed of a drone, normal traffic can resume much faster than ever. The drones also need to maintain a distance of 50ft from the bridge while collecting data without flying beyond 1,500 of the pilot.
This is not the first time the FAA has granted a BVLOS waiver. Over the last year or so, limited BVLOS waivers for single flights have been granted to select companies for trial missions. The waiver granted to Skydio and the NCDOT is unique in that it will cover all flights for bridge inspections for an extended period of time. “Drones are a fantastic new tool for our Bridge Inspection Units,” said North Carolina Secretary of Transportation, Eric Boyette. “Safety is our top priority at NCDOT, and this new system helps improve the safety of not only our bridges and other infrastructure, but of our inspectors as well.” Ultimately, the success of this waiver will pave the way for future BVLOS flights in a multitude of fields, particularly drones being used as delivery vehicles.