Utilising drones for bridge inspections

Jul 17
Author:Ron Hawken
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You are out on site doing a bridge inspection, the water level of the creek is nearing the top of your waders, and you see something unusual on the deck soffit three spans further away. You grab the binoculars for a better look and then push the zoom on your camera to the absolute limit for a photo, but all to no avail. The extent of what you now suspect is a concrete spall is unclear. Wouldn’t you just love to be able to pull out a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and fly it over (or under) for a better view of the suspicious anomaly?

Two years ago, VicRoads bridge inspectors had the same thought, and began to investigate the possibilities presented by the emerging drone industry. Whilst the dream of having RPA in the back of the ute is yet to be realised, VicRoads has successfully trialled bridge inspections using RPAs and other remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

Early trials

Firstly, in an initial trial at Nathalia, it was confirmed that in certain situations it was technically viable to inspect smaller hard to access bridges. (For the curious it showed the anomaly mentioned above to be a concrete spall with two bars of reinforcement exposed to the elements.)

Bridge damage

A further trial on three bridges across the north east of the state demonstrated the economical viability of a well planned day of inspections of high bridges in rugged terrain.

It has been concluded that in the right situation, RPAs have the potential to save time and money compared to many of the conventional methods of inspecting those hard to reach places. Elevated work platforms, underbridge inspection units, inspectors in boat and barges or hanging from ropes significantly raise the cost of an inspection. Filling your waders and drowning is also too high a price to pay.

Ongoing advancements

As RPAs become more advanced, as the payloads become more miniaturised, and as ideas go beyond just the still and video cameras, interest in RPAs continues to increase in the world of asset management. So too does the interest in raw data that can be collected from these versatile platforms and how it can be processed into valuable information for the asset owner.

With new CASA regulations making it easier for road authorities and councils, the era of an RPA in the back of the ute may not be as far away as first thought.  In fact, it may be here already.

Submitted by Ron Hawken

Ron Hawken

Ronald Hawken is the former Team Leader – Structural Technology and Assets within the Structures Group, Asset Services at VicRoads. His responsibilities included management of the Bridge Monitor Program, and the associated regular engineering inspection of over 600 older structures on the Higher Mass Limits network. He is a Chartered Professional civil engineer with over fifteen years experience in the field of bridge design, construction, maintenance and inspection.

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