The United States has a lot of bridges –more than 600,000 –many of which are in disrepair or reaching the end of their planned lives. According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, 9.1 percent of the bridges in the U.S. were structurally deficient in 2016, meaning that drivers made an average of 188 million trips across a deficient bridge every day. That means that inspecting bridges is a critical activity for many states. Many states are looking to drones to bolster that activity. For example, the State of Minnesota plans to make drones a standard part of its bridge inspection toolkit. While Minnesota isn’t among the states with the highest number or percentage of deficient bridges, it does struggle with the increasing costs of bridge inspections, and that’s where drones come in.
Drones can do a lot of things that are either difficult or unsafe to do. Because of a drone’s size, weight, controllability and built-in fail safes, the risk to inspection personnel and the public is very low. Drones can save time and money and lower the risk of injury. The overall payoff could be huge. Extending the life of bridges is worth billions of dollars to the economy.
Many states and businesses have an interest in using these new tools, and while this particular use will start off slowly, as the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rules become less stringent more and more states and businesses will follow along.