Traditional inspections of horizontal infrastructure can be time consuming, labor intensive, costly, and high risk. They often involve ground crews working in hard-to-access terrain. They may also require helicopters or small planes. Using drones is becoming the best practice for surveying all kinds of public and private works: bridges, dams, power lines, wind turbines, solar utilities, oil and gas pipelines, and railways, among others. The rapid adoption of drones for these uses is due in part to the improvements the technology brings to the work: better data, lower cost, improved safety, and reduced corporate risk.

America is facing with a huge backlog of deferred public works maintenance. The ASCE’s latest report estimates that infrastructure deficiencies, if left unaddressed, will cost the economy about $3.9 trillion in GDP and 2.5 million jobs by 2025. 

Drones are a key part of the solution for speeding up infrastructure inspections and identifying faults before systems fail. Here are five key need-to-knows for UAS pilots and managers who are ramping up new drone infrastructure inspection programs:

  1. Have a data security plan
  2. Be sure your infrastructure inspection is allowed by law
  3. Don’t reinvent the wheel
  4. Keep up with changing rules
  5. Have a long-term vision for your drone inspection program

Pointer 1: Have a plan for securing your drone data

The data collected by drones—high-resolution photos, high-definition videos, 3D terrain models, point clouds, thermal imagery—is usually stored in a company database. When it comes to critical infrastructure systems like dams, the grid, and pipelines, this can be sensitive information.

As with any data, it’s important to have a plan for how it will be protected and managed. Think about the necessary IT integrations and how data will be kept secure during all phases: gathering, transmission, reporting, storage, and archiving. 

Pointer 2: Make sure the inspection is feasible

Drone inspections are far safer for field workers than manual/traditional inspections, and they can go a long way toward reducing corporate risk. Drones can provide visibility into places that are hard to access or too small for humans.

Drones can also fly in harsher conditions than ground crews can tolerate. They can also get closer to assets than crewed aircraft, for better views and data. They can provide real-time visuals during emergencies or disasters. And, normal business operations can often continue during an inspection.

But not all infrastructure is accessible to UAVs. In the U.S., the airspace above “critical infrastructure” (defined on a state-by-state basis) is a no-fly zone. The Golden Gate Bridge prohibits drone flyovers. Tennessee’s critical infrastructure includes electric power plants, petroleum refineries, manufacturing facilities that use combustible chemicals, facilities that manufacture chemicals or rubber, and petroleum or chemical storage facilities.

Pointer 3: Capitalize on what others have already learned

There are loads of off-the-shelf resources that can help your inspection program follow best practices. These can guide planning, demonstrate proof of concept to internal decision makers, and provide new ideas for other UAS uses. UAS technology providers’ websites are a good starting point for use cases and other resources. For example, here at Skyward we have developed a rich library of getting-started assetsbudgeting tools, flight plan checklists, maintenance how-tos, fact sheets, pilot training materials—to support budding or scaling program needs.

Pointer 4: Keep up with changing rules

UAS is a young technology, and federal and state rules are changing all the time. This means UAV pilots and program managers need a plan to comply with rapidly evolving rules. For example, new federal regulations are being developed for flights over people. One proposed policy would prohibit drone flights over moving vehicles, which would have significant ramifications for state highway departments using drones for bridge and road bed inspections.

Other rulemaking is underway for beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights, which will bring exciting new possibilities for infrastructure inspections. Subscribe to Skyward’s news and insights to keep up.

Pointer 5: Have a vision beyond your initial inspection use case

UAS can transform business operations and quickly prove value for your initial purposes. Before long, new use cases will present themselves. For example, Southern Company started out using drones to inspect  transmission and distribution lines. Soon, they discovered the benefits of UAS for construction project monitoring, mapping, more predictive maintenance, volumetric analysis of coal piles, and stringing new wire. Drones helped Southern shave the time required for line pulling after a wind storm from weeks to minutes.

With so many options, it’s smart to define a long-term vision for your program. Refer again to success stories in your industry to learn from others’ experience: Identify unexpected findings and new insights from drone data that helped the business. Did UAS make any processes obsolete, or require new processes? What additional uses should you add next?

Connecting drones to cellular networks should be part of your forward thinking. The 5G future is arriving soon, and is expected to open up new capabilities like autonomous, remote-guided, nighttime, and BVLOS flights.

If you need expert help defining a vision for how UAS can work in your organization, just ask. Our Quick-Start Package includes the support, hardware, software, and training needed to shorten the runway for your program launch. 

National infrastructure: not getting any younger

The list of American public works needing attention is long and getting longer:

  • In 2016, about 56,000 US bridges were structurally deficient.
  • There were about 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day.
  • Most of the 239 locks and dams on the United States’ “water highway”—the 25,000-mile system of inland waterways that moves about 14 percent of all domestic freight—are well beyond their 50-year design life. Nearly half of vessels experience delays.
  • The average age of the 90,000+ dams in the country is over 50 years. The number of deficient, high-hazard potential dams has climbed to an estimated 2,170.

Drone inspections can play a key role in monitoring the built environment and keeping the nation’s infrastructure up and running. Drones are revolutionizing how physical assets are surveyed, repaired, and maintained. They speed up the pace of inspections while lowering costs and reducing risks. And, connected drones promise another big leap forward. 

Interested in drone infrastructure inspections? Learn more about how we help enterprises and government agencies build full-service UAS programs with our industry-leading consulting and software.