A New Approach to Bridge Inspection and Safety

Unmanned aerial vehicle – Digital image correlation (UAV-DIC) System

Forest Products Laboratory’s (FPL) researcher James Wacker with collaborators from the Department of Civil Environmental Engineering, South Dakota State University are working on a new approach to inspecting bridges that will allow inspections to one day be more cost-efficient, easier to conduct, more accessible, and safer for motorists and inspectors alike. The journal article, “New Bridge Inspection Approach with Joint UAV and DIC System,” was published in Structures Congress 2020.

Our nation’s bridges have been under an every-two-year mandated inspection for nearly 50 years. The current method of inspecting bridges is accomplished largely by visual assessment often using costly snooper trucks. Wacker describes this approach as “a passive approach that has provided subjective and unreliable data.”

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Drones as Damage Detectors? Researchers Consider Remote Aircraft as Bridge Inspection Tool

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, nearly one quarter of bridges across the country are structurally obsolete and 11 percent are structurally flawed.

Timber bridges in Pennington County, South Dakota.

Timber bridges in Pennington County, South Dakota.

Researchers from the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) and South Dakota State University are on a mission to identify effective inspection methods, especially where there are accessibility challenges for inspectors, in an attempt to improve this statistic. The team is posing an interesting question as part of their search: Can drones help detect bridge damage? FPL Research General Engineer James Wacker is taking to the skies to find out.

Wacker and his fellow researchers are investigating whether the use of a remotely piloted aircraft, or drone, is a cost effective solution to help inspectors pinpoint areas of structural decay and degradation. Drones can be armed with high-resolution cameras that allow for recording of highly detailed images and videos, along with other tools such as infrared imaging.

Beginning in early spring 2017, the researchers will team up with the South Dakota Department of Transportation to conduct a drone inspection of two timber bridges in South Dakota. High-quality images from the drone will be evaluated and compared with data from conventional inspections.

The final results of the study will be issued in a report that will document the drone inspections and offer recommendations for drone-based inspection procedures.

To learn more about this study, read the full Research in Progress report.

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta