Intel Flies Drones for Bridge Inspection

Kentucky and Minnesota state transportation departments perform automated drone surveys.

The Intel Falcon 8+ drone surveys Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge. (Image courtesy of Intel.)

The Intel Falcon 8+ drone surveys Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge. (Image courtesy of Intel.)

The Kentucky and Minnesota state transportation departments recently used Intel drones to make photogrammetry models of their state bridges.

Intel worked with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) to inspect the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge spanning Ohio and Kentucky and with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to inspect the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. Both bridges carry heavy traffic, making them inconvenient to shut down and therefore prime candidates for a drone-based aerial inspection. On the Beard Bridge project, the drone inspection was supplemented with a rope access inspection, whereas the Stone Arch inspection was conducted alongside an underwater survey performed by divers.

Intel conducted the inspections with its Falcon 8+ drone, a V-shaped octocopter with the ability to mount multiple different payloads for professional use, equipped with a Sony A7R digital camera. Workers used Intel’s Mission Control software to plan an automated flight plan for the drone before it took to the air, determining waypoints where it would stop and photograph the bridges. “We created the mission, loaded it into the Intel Falcon system, and we were able to take off, get it close to the structure, hit “play,” and it went to its first waypoint and flew the predetermined mission,” said Alicia McConnell, civil engineer at Michael Baker International, the engineering company that mapped Daniel Carter Beard Bridge.

After the flight, the teams used Intel Insight Platform, a digital asset management platform for drone data, to stitch the photos together into a 3D model. Insight helps users sort, store and analyze commercial drone data from industries like agriculture, construction and utilities. It can be used with either Bentley or Pix4D photogrammetry software to create BIM models or digital twins. In this case, both teams used both Bentley and Pix4D software to create their final models.

Among its other features, Insight includes “change detection,” which highlights changes between current and past scans and enables users to flag any change or degradation in the asset being scanned. The scanning teams plan to use this feature to examine how the bridges change between this flight and a subsequent one. “The next time we do the inspection, we have all the information, all the flight plans, and we’re collecting the same data from the same viewpoints,” said Barritt Lovelace, a regional manager at Collins Engineering, which performed the Stone Arch Bridge mapping.

According to Intel, the aerial survey made the survey far quicker and less expensive. The Stone Arch inspection saw a cost savings of approximately 40 percent, and across both projects, the drone inspection reduced overall workhours by 28 percent.

Intel entered the American commercial drone market in 2016 with Falcon 8+ after investing $60 million in the Yuneec drone the year before. And while the company is still not in the same industry bracket as giants like DJI, it has picked up the pace on drone developments in the last year. Intel announced Insight at the end of 2017 and announced Mission Control (along with three new mountable payloads) at AUVSI XPONENTIAL2018. The company also made the news back in July for the world’s largest coordinated drone flight (2,018 drones), and for partnering with the China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation to map and preserve sections of the Great Wall.

Why is Intel suddenly focused more on the commercial drone market? Intel, and other companies providing drone surveying equipment and software, are poised to benefit from the U.S. infrastructure deficit. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America’s infrastructure a D+ on its “report card” of the nation, which is released once every four years. Overall, America’s bridges got a slightly higher grade—a C+. By ASCE’s estimation, the nation has a backlog of $123 billion in needed bridge repairs.

In its statement on the bridge mapping projects, Intel mentioned that need, and how it hopes to fill it. “There are over 600,000 bridges in the U.S. Ten percent of them are structurally deficient and need to be inspected,” said Anil Nanduri, VP and GM of Intel’s drone group.” Automation can help make it faster and cheaper, more efficient and safer. Our job is to make it an end-to-end solution, as simple as pressing a button.”

The states’ departments of transportation seem to agree. Erin Van Zee, transportation engineering specialist at the Kentucky Department of Transportation, said, “If we can collect data today and come out in three years, five years, ten years, and we can put these models together and help program funds for the future, we can use taxpayers’ money and our time more efficiently.”