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Flying Forward: PennDOT's use of unmanned aerial systems progresses with efficiency gains

August 25, 2021 09:00 AM
By: PennDOT Bureau of Innovations

​PennDOT's use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – also known as drones – is assisting the agency in its mission to effectively manage Pennsylvania's far-flung transportation system.

Since its start in 2018, PennDOT's UAS program has been exploring such uses as structural inspection, surveys, traffic analysis, construction inspection and production quantity estimates, incident management, and disaster response. As of spring 2021, PennDOT had 13 licensed UAS pilots and 13 UAS aircrafts.  PennDOT's Bureau of Aviation has also certified more than 30 contractor and consultant pilots.

PennDOT's foray into UAS is part of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Every Day Counts Round 5 (EDC-5) innovation. And, through the State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC), FHWA STIC Incentive Program funding was provided to assist PennDOT in further developing its UAS program and policies. This will help standardize the use of UAS in Pennsylvania for PennDOT.

PennDOT's District 11 is using UAS equipment in a variety of ways, according to J. Brian Walter, P.E., senior civil engineer supervisor and innovation project champion.  As part of the Kenmawr Bridge Replacement Project in Allegheny County, UAS flights are typically conducted monthly or when there is a major traffic change, or critical work item. Using the "Reconstruct" software, a PennDOT consultant uses the output from the flights to generate a 3D model, which is then tied to the project schedule to monitor progress.

On the U.S. Route 30 relocation project in Beaver County, between Hookstown and the Ohio State Line, UAS will be used to assist in calculating earthmoving quantities. 

PennDOT consultant, Michael Baker International, has conducted monthly UAS flights to monitor progress on the Interstate 579 Cap Urban Connector Project in Allegheny County. The project involves construction of a new "cap" park structure spanning over a portion of I-579.

Ellwood City bridge inspection using drone footage
Bridge over the Connoquenessing Creek in Ellwood City.
PennDOT also conducted a test flight and collected photos and video of a high pier bridge using a DJI Mavic 2 Pro and DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2 UAS on Pennsylvania Route 65 (5th Street) over the Connoquenessing Creek in Ellwood City, Lawrence County. Using drone footage, a time lapse video was created to highlight the Shaler Street Bridge replacement in Pittsburgh. The two-span bridge was constructed off-site and moved to its final location using self-propelled modular transporters (SPMTs), making it the first project in Pennsylvania to use this Accelerated Bridge Construction method.

District 11 has also used drones to aid in incident management and disaster response. In the unique geographic landscape of western Pennsylvania, falling rocks and landslides are pretty common events. 

Overhead view of roadwork near Elizabeth, Allegheny County, captured by a drone. Road appears to be built on a level section of a large mountain.
Image captured by drone at the Glassport-Elizabeth Road in Allegheny County.
When a teetering boulder closed the Glassport-Elizabeth Road near Elizabeth, Allegheny County, the decision was made to blast the boulder off of the rocky slope above the roadway. PennDOT recorded the blast of the boulder using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2 drone, which eliminated the risk to department personnel and helped monitor the status of the railroad further below for possible debris. This enabled PennDOT personnel, including the UAS pilot, to stand about a quarter mile away. The required minimum distance was 500 feet away from the blast.

Steubenville Pike view from overhead captured by drone.
Steubenville Pike in Imperial, Allegheny County.
During the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, District 11 also conducted the final inspection of two landslides using a drone—one on the Steubenville Pike in Imperial, Allegheny County and another on State Route 18 near Raccoon Creek State Park, Bever County. In this way, department personnel could conduct their review while working remotely.

"Our recent purchase of Kittyhawk drone fleet management software will open up new possibilities by allowing livestreaming between our drones and licensed department computers," Walter added.

John G. Melville, aviation specialist supervisor in the Bureau of Aviation, noted that PennDOT's Multimodal Deputate is also using drone footage to create a time lapse video of the Middletown Train Station Project along Route 230 (West Main Street) in Dauphin County.  

"The project is anticipated to take approximately two years to complete, and the video will document that process," he said.

Gov. Tom Wolf directed PennDOT to create a public/private task force on drones. According to Melville, the groundwork for that initiative is nearly complete, and the first meeting was scheduled for May 2021.

PennDOT is also working on a training program for department UAS pilots. Material covered will include both FAA Part 107 regulations and PennDOT's UAS policy.

Melville added that PennDOT expects to resume work this summer with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and other state agencies on drone uses and coordination.

"We will be discussing pilot training, operational standards and expectations on mutual aid," Melville said.

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