Researchers at The University of Texas at Arlington will lead a collaborative effort to use unmanned aerial vehicles to inspect highways and railroads remotely and develop guidelines for how to safely complete the task.

Civil Engineering Professor Anand Puppala is the primary investigator on the two-year, $770,909 Texas Department of Transportation agreement. Teams from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas A&M’s Texas Transportation Institute also will contribute.

Puppala and post-doctoral researchers Tejo Bheemasetti and Ujwal Patil, as well as Mike McNair and Cody Lee Lundberg from the UTA Research Institute, will use UTA’s share of the funding, $388,000, to determine how to use unmanned aerial vehicles to perform remote sensing and collect high-definition photos while conducting pavement forensics at the U.S. Highway 67 project site in Cleburne and at U.S. Highway 82 near Bell in Fannin County.

The UAVs also will collect data on the condition of railroad tracks and crossings on a section of track in south central Texas. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and TTI will develop procedural guidelines and best practices for the use of UAVs for this purpose.

Speed, safety and cost are the advantages of using UAVs instead of people on-site, Puppala explained.

“It is safer and less expensive to use a UAV to check pavement performance characteristics because there is no need to close lanes and a person doesn’t have to be on the roadway or on active railroad tracks,” Puppala said. “The high-resolution photos that we will receive will provide as much information as an instrument on the pavement.

“Another advantage is that we will be able to transmit data from the UAV to a computer and process images very quickly. We can then provide analysis within hours so TxDOT can make decisions immediately.”

The research is just one example of how UTA contributes to sustainable urban communities, a theme of the university’s Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

“The use of unmanned vehicle technology to monitor infrastructure in the U.S. is growing fast. This project focused on highways and railways will help make a huge difference in the state’s ability to maintain and ensure continued safety and reliability of key commerce routes,” UTA

Dean of Engineering Peter Crouch said. “This collaboration will ensure that UTA is taking a very active role in these critical roles in maintaining and improving our transportation systems.”

This contract is just one of UTA’s recent transportation-related projects, including:

  • Puppala and Xinbao Yu’s $336,370 TxDOT contract to use geofoam for repairs to bridge approaches.
  • Yu and Puppala’s $743,000 TxDOT grant to model geothermal de-icing of bridges.
  • Sahadat Hossain’s $1 million TxDOT contract to explore the use of recycled plastic pins to shore up clay soils that support highway slopes.