BEREA, Ohio – The Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission in September will complete its first bridge inspection using an unmanned aircraft system, or drone.
The drone will be used to inspect the Sandusky River Bridge, a 970-foot-long bridge in Sandusky County on either Sept. 13 or Sept. 14, depending on the weather.
Typically, the bridge receives a hands-on inspection by engineering firm AECOM. However, that can prove challenging given the length and width – 102 feet – of the bridge, according to Randy Cole, executive director of the turnpike.
Cole, who lives in Aurora, for days drove by the inspection of the Cuyahoga Valley Bridge and thought, "there has to be a better way," as he watched inspectors dangle under bridges in snooper trucks – trucks with a bucket attached to an arm that can extend under a bridge.
So, when the opportunity came up to work with the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center, the Ohio Department of Transportation and a UAS company, senseFly, on a drone bridge inspection, he was on board.
"We hope to determine if the use of a drone may reduce the time and expense and increase safety when performing these types of inspections on the turnpike and on the ODOT system," Cole said Monday during a turnpike commission meeting.
The turnpike commission will compare the results of the drone inspection with those garnered by AECOM's in-person inspection.
"It's safer for our motorists. It's safer for the people doing it. What we want to validate is that the data is as good or better than we would get by human visual inspection," Cole said.
During snooper truck inspections, part of the turnpike has to be shut down and crews have to establish work zones. Using a drone could eliminate the need for such work zones during inspections.
If the drone bridge inspection proves successful, the turnpike will consider allowing contractors to use drones for other activities, such as construction services and for emergency response, Cole said.
"In a large pile-up that happens on any of our interstates in this country, getting a drone through the traffic to see what's happening at the point of impact is safer and faster than trying to get humans and trucks through," Cole said.
He made note of the Fulton County accident on the toll road in June that involved a truck carrying liquid hydrogen. Humans couldn't get near the truck, which caught fire after the crash, but a drone could have had better access to check the temperature of the truck to to gauge its fuel levels, he said.
"There's nothing that would have stopped a drone from getting as close as possible," Cole said.