The New York State Thruway Authority To Begin Using Drones For Bridge Inspections and More

If you have ever been a commuter on one of New York’s major roadways, you have likely sat through some slow moving traffic. Like all metropolitan areas, New York has become well known for its overly congested roadways. Besides the steady increase of drivers on the roads, infrastructure inspection and repairs often lead to major traffic delays. The New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA) is responsible for the maintenance of the state’s highway infrastructure. This includes bridges, tolls, tunnels, and roadways. All funding for the NYSTA comes from the collection of tolls from the state’s 30 toll roads. The NYSTA brings in about $2.7billion annually in toll revenue, but they are still operating under significant debt.

Because of this debt, the NYSTA has to find new ways of carrying out day to day activities without jeopardizing the jobs of more than 3,700 people. On Monday, October 4, 2021, the NYSTA announced it was entering a pilot program with Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR) to utilize drones as inspection tools. Founded in 2014, NUAIR has been providing the state of New York with unparalleled drone testing capabilities. Headquartered in Syracuse, NY, NUAIR manages one of the FAA’s seven UAS testing facilities out of Griffiss International Airport. They have also developed the 50 mile long drone testing corridor, the AAM Proving Grounds, that runs between Syracuse and Rome, NY. This drone testing corridor has been vital in establishing the technology to support BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) drone operations, the next frontier for the drone industry.

Using drones as inspection tools is nothing new to NUAIR. One of their many services is to provide drone consulting programs to businesses. NUAIR shows their clients how drones can benefit their operations, and then trains employees to use the drones. NUAIR has provided drone consultation and training programs for law enforcement agencies, construction management, solar, gas, and electric companies, and more. And now, they will be sharing their drone expertise with the NYSTA free of charge thanks to Empire State Development grants.

Traditionally, to inspect bridge infrastructure, the NYSTA has to set up lane closures to allow a crew to manually access the bridge. This is time consuming, costly, and puts NYSTA workers at risk of injury. Not to mention that it leads to intense traffic jams. “Drones take 30 minutes and you don’t have to close traffic, don’t have to close a lane,” Ken Stewart, president, and CEO of NUAIR said. “So, it’s safer, safer for motorists, safer for highway safety workers, and more cost-effective than a quarter-million dollar truck.”

Stewart wanted to make it clear that introducing drones as inspection tools do not take away job opportunities. “The drones are just another tool in the tool belt that they can use that’s more cost-effective,” he said. “They still need the other tools that they have. They need engineers that are trained and looking at bridges. Just a different way of capturing the data.” In fact, drones will open up possibilities for more job positions as NUAIR will need to train NYSTA individuals to become licensed drone operators.

The program is set to begin this fall and run through the spring going through 2 testing phases. Upon the completion of the trial, the NYSTA will evaluate the data collected to determine how drones can be further used for NYSTA management. This could mean expanding from bridge inspection to tunnel and roadway inspections. “Using drone technology to inspect bridges, overpasses, and infrastructure along our entire system is an imaginable game-changer,” Thruway Authority Executive Director Matthew J. Driscoll said. “Drones can provide views of hard-to-reach locations quickly and safely. This pilot program aligns with the Thruway’s vision of maximizing technological innovation and continuing to improve infrastructure for the future.”

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