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Increasing Understanding of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Capabilities to Address Transportation Infrastructure Issues


In recent years, the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems/Vehicles (UAS/UAV) has greatly increased. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had been restricting the use of UAVs to recreational purposes or to public entities with permitted authorization to fly. However, with a continued increase in interest and operations of UAS, including Congressional direction, the FAA is in the process of enabling commercial use, through Section 333 “exemption” process for commercial purposes. Additionally, approval of newly proposed small UAS (SUAS) rules for systems under 55lbs (25kg) are likely to take effect in 2017. With more practical uses of UAVs under FAA permission, the adoption of UAS by transportation agencies for a wide variety of data collection needs will continue to increase with local, state, and federal transportation agencies. Agencies and their partners have started evaluating and using these platforms as new methods of data collection and analysis, ranging from vehicle accident investigations to bridge infrastructure and roadway assessments. Through the use and development of currently available and new sensors onboard of a UAS platform (such as high resolution optical and thermal cameras, Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), chemical sensors, etc.) transportation officials are beginning to be able to make quantifications concerning the condition of transportation assets more safely, objectively, and quickly than many current manual methods.


The objective of this RNS is to develop research opportunities that enable transportation agencies to evaluate and implement applications of UAS for transportation infrastructure assessments and other related tasks. Although previous research has already been conducted using UAS for transportation asset management and other purposes, the full capability of this technology has not come to fruition due to rapidly changing technology, developing national and local rules, and the need for more case studies for transportation agencies to access and understand. Evolving technologies include new platforms, reduction in costs, larger payloads, new capabilities allowing for access to previously inaccessible areas, collision avoidance, flying in swarms, and acquisition of remotely sensed data through less expensive and smaller sensors (e.g. new thermal and LiDAR sensors). Through new national regulations, new platforms, cheaper sensors, and more capable data analysis software, more widespread opportunities for transportation infrastructure assessment are becoming available, with the opportunity for more in-depth findings and conclusions becoming available to transportation agencies.


Local, state, and federal transportation agencies will benefit from potential research concerning UAS by acquiring access to well-documented knowledge of new data collection and assessment methods that have the potential to reduce transportation infrastructure assessment costs while also increasing the safety of agency staff collecting the needed data. Furthermore, with implementation of UAS into infrastructure assessment, transportation agencies that incorporate these methods will be forefront on new applications of this rapidly evolving technology. While large volumes of data are expected, UAS have the capability to rapidly and safely collect data to meet a wide variety of agency information needs.

Related Research:

Potential barriers to implementation should also be documented, such as the impacts of expected regulations (flying below 400 to 500 feet (122 to 152m) and only within line-of-sight). Public concerns on privacy and safety will need to be addressed. Currently, companies interested in using UAS for commercial purposes are required to obtain a Section 333 exemption. However, new regulations are scheduled to be released in 2017 that are likely to make UAS operations more widespread. Most Previous research projects similar to this proposed research have demonstrated the capabilities of using UAS for infrastructure assessment to transportation agencies. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) funded research in which the use of UAVs for transportation purposes were evaluated for use in highway bridge, confined space, and traffic monitoring purposes. It was determined that UAV technologies provided many advantages to MDOT in the cost-effective assessment, management, and maintenance of its resources, while also providing benefits to their employees and the traveling public. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has been evaluating UAS for bridge inspections. A 2014 Caltrans report lists eight states that have started to formally evaluate the potential applications of UAS (these include: Dobson et al., 2014; Brooks et al., 2015; Estes, 2014; Irizarry, 2014; Siskowski and Frierson, 2013; Barfuss et al., 2012; Judson, 2012; UTCP, 2012; McCormack, 2008).

Similarly, UAS applications have been demonstrated to the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) under the Commercial Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Program () in the application of assessing unpaved roads for distress features and overall condition rating. The research determined that UAS could significantly reduce the time required to assess an unpaved road, while also increasing inspector safety and decreasing the overall costs associated with road assessments. As for using UAVs for traffic monitoring purposes, the University of Florida and the Ohio State University have both used fixed wing UAS to study traffic patterns. Additionally, UAVs have also been used for many non-transportation purposes, including environmental / vegetation condition assessments (Turner et al., 2012; Laliberte et al., 2010), natural disaster monitoring (Adams and Friedland, 2011), and geo-asset monitoring (Westoby et al., 2012).

transportation agencies have had to obtain a Certificate of Authorization to operate UAS themselves as public agencies, which has not enabled as many uses as the new Section 333 commercial exemptions. Since UAV platform and sensor technologies are rapidly evolving, research is proposed to evaluate new UAS platforms and sensor technologies for infrastructure assessment applications. Additionally, instead of only focusing on research and development of UAV platforms, sensors, and capabilities, this proposed research would also focus strongly on working alongside of transportation agencies at multiple infrastructure sites to determine the best methods for operationalization data collection processes. Development of these processes would help move UAS technology to day-to-day operation in a safe working environment. Emphasis would be placed on creating data directly applicable to agency needs that can be easily implemented with wide interoperability.


1. Literature review of previous and current UAS for transportation infrastructure research

Prior to the development of a methodology to use UAS for assessment of transportation infrastructure issues (e.g. bridge assessments, traffic monitoring, confined space inspections, road condition assessments, etc.), a literature review of previous and current UAV-based methodologies should be conducted. This thorough review should include previously published methods and current state of the art practices. Barriers to implementation experienced by transportation agencies and companies interested in providing UAV-enabled services to these agencies should be document. It should also include an overview of how remote sensing can help transportation officials in the assessment of transportation features.

2. Details of current and upcoming regulatory environment for use of UAVs by transportation agencies and their contractors.

Due to developing FAA regulations, it is vital to understand when and where UAS are permitted to fly and under what conditions and restrictions. Regulations are scheduled to change in 2017, but currently different permits allow pilots to fly UAVs in certain designated areas (i.e. Section 333 for commercial use and Certificates of Authorization for public agencies). A detailed review of current and forthcoming FAA UAS regulations will therefore need to be given to indicate how these aerial data collection devices can be operated by transportation agencies and third-party service providers.

3. Review of current and upcoming UAV platforms and remote sensors

Different types of transportation infrastructure assessments will likely require different types of UAS (such as multi-rotor, fixed wing, and aerostat-type aircraft) that are capable of collecting needed data. Therefore, an overview on UAS platforms that are capable of collecting different types of infrastructure imagery and data will be required. This overview should contain each UAS platform’s representative specifications (i.e. type, payload, flight time, battery life, cost, etc.). Additionally, for the proposed sensors that will potentially be placed on the UAS platform, a review of the specifications of each sensor (i.e. type, weight, resolution, cost, etc.) will be required, including where technology development appears to be heading. Data volumes, formats, interoperability, and similar issues will need to be reviewed. This overview will help transportation officials understand what types of data analysis is feasible for different transportation infrastructures.

4. Regional outreach efforts to gain understanding of interests and concerns by transportation agencies in using UAVs

As part of the analysis, outreach efforts with local and state transportation agencies will be required to gain understanding of interests of transportation agencies in using UAS. These outreach efforts could potentially exist as scheduled meetings, demonstrations, and/or training efforts to local transportation agencies.

5. Field case studies – working demonstrations of UAV applications through regional outreach

In relation to Task 4, through regional outreach efforts it is suggested that working demonstrations at transportation infrastructure sites should occur through coordination with DOT inspectors and personnel. These demonstrations could coincide with data collection in the field benefiting both the transportation agency and research team and should indicate to transportation agencies that the research team is knowledgeable about the subject and in the field. As demonstrated by Brooks et al. (2015), the use of UAVs for infrastructure assessment can be conducted safely in active construction zones. Furthermore, it has also been demonstrated that high-resolution imagery can be used to create three-dimensional models of infrastructure, in which quantitative information can be extracted from, such as amount of spalling on a bridge deck or the severity of potholes affecting a gravel road. For further development in the use of UAVs for transportation infrastructure assessment, development of additional quantitative models that incorporate and combine additional sensing technologies (e.g. LiDAR and thermal infrared) should be focused on. By combining optical, thermal, and LIDAR technologies in field case studies, qualitative and quantitative understanding of transportation infrastructure will be improved. A series of these working demonstrations at transportation agency sites around the country would result from this task.


Upon successful demonstrations to transportation agencies that help indicate the potential benefits of incorporating this type of assessment into daily analyses, training in the use of UAS for these purposes will need to be given in order for full implementation into transportation departments. Depending on the level of data collection and data processing required, training in flying UAS, how to access UAS services, collection of high-quality data, and processing of data into day-to-day work processes can take a while for full implementation. Each transportation agency would need to be knowledgeable in UAS regulations and whether they want to operate them or work with third-party service providers in the commercial sector. Additionally, the transportation agency would need to know where flights can and cannot occur (i.e. currently flights cannot occur within five miles of an airport without explicit permission).

For dissemination of the study’s results, potential products can include:

  1. A report for State DOTs that overviews the current state of UAV and remote sensing technologies, additional applications to consider, options for deployment and steps that should be taken to ready their agencies for future implementation (or steps that need to be consider for piloting the technology), and an overview of rules and regulations that must followed for safe UAV operations.

  2. A set of accompanying case studies that provide a detailed overview of UAV deployment for specific applications – including transportation infrastructure planning, coordination, data collection, etc. and background into how rapidly changing UAV technologies can be potentially implemented into these suggested accompanying case studies.

  3. A user-friendly, periodically update web resource that documents the state of technologies, developing rules, and case study results.


Through both development of practical applications such as infrastructure condition assessment, and sharing of knowledge with transportation agency officials, the applications of UAS can potentially be implemented into asset management and operations procedures. By incorporating UAS into meeting data collection needs, transportation agencies will have the ability to implement new data collection and assessment methods that have the potential to reduce costs while also increasing inspector safety. It is vital that transportation agencies are knowledgeable about current and future UAS applications and regulations, as well as the capabilities of different platforms and sensors that are becoming more widely available with greater capabilities.

Sponsoring Committee:AED50, Information Systems and Technology
Research Period:12 - 24 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Colin Brooks Phone 734-604-4196
Source Info:Adams, S.M., and Friedland, C.J., 2011. A survey of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) usage for imagery collection in disaster research and management. 9th International Workshop on Remote Sensing for Disaster Response, 8 pgs.
Barfuss, S.L., Jensen, A., Clemens, S., 2012. Evaluating and Development of Unmanned Aircraft (UAV) for UDOT Needs. Utah Department of Transportation Research Division Report No. UT-12.08. 49 pgs.
Dobson, R., Colling, T., Brooks, C., Roussi, C., Watkins, M. and Dean, D., 2014. Collecting Decision Support System Data Through Remote Sensing of Unpaved Roads. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 2433: 108-115.
Brooks, C., Dobson, R.J., Banach, D.M., Dean, D. Oommen, T., Escobar-Wolf, R., Havens, T.C., Ahlborn, T.M., Hart, B, 2015. Evaluating the Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Transportation Purposes. Michigan Department of Transportation Final Report No. RC1616. 201 pgs. http://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9622_11045_24249_52176-353767--,00.html
Estes, C., 2014. Unmanned Aircraft Use in North Carolina. Report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Information Technology Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee Fiscal Research Division. 28 pgs.
Irizarry, J., Johnson, E.N., 2014. Feasibility Study to Determine the Economic and Operational Benefits of Utilizing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Georgia Institute of Technology Report No. FHWA-GA-1H-12-38. 156 pgs
Judson, F., 2012. The Ohio Department of Transportation and Unmanned Aircraft Systems. LiDAR Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 5. 4 pgs.
Laliberte, A.S., Herrick, J.E., Rango, A., Winters, C., 2010. Acquisition, or thorectification, and object-based classification of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery for rangeland monitoring. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, 76(6), 661-672.
McCormack, E.D., 2008. The Use of Small Unmanned Aircraft by the Washington State Department of Transportation. Washington State Department of Transportation Report No. WA-RD 703.1. 27 pgs.
Siskowski, D. and Frierson, T., 2013. Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for AHTD Applications. Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department Contract TRC-1104.116 pgs.
Turner, D., Lucieer, A., Watson, C., 2012. An Automated Technique for Generating Georectified Mosaics from Ultra-High Resolution Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Imagery, Based on Structure from Motion (SfM) Point Clouds. Remote Sensing, 4(5), 1392-1410.
Westoby, M.J., Brasington, J., Glasser, J.F., Hambrey, M.J., Reynolds, J.M., 2012. Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry: A low-cost, effective tool for geoscience applications. Geomorphology, 179, 300-314.
University Transportation Centers Program (UTCP), 2012. Development of UAV-Based Remote Sensing Capabilities for Highway Applications. February 2012. 2 pages.
Date Posted:07/21/2016
Date Modified:09/25/2016
Index Terms:Drone aircraft, Permits, Data collection, Sensors, Inspection, Laser radar,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Data and Information Technology
Bridges and other structures

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