Drones could help human workers safeguard the 4 million miles of U.S. highways crisscrossing the country. The flying robots could inspect bridges and roads, survey lands with laser mapping, and even alert officials to traffic jams or accidents.
One such project focused on studying the use of drones recently received $74,984 from the Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation. Researchers plan to spend the next year figuring out how drones could help workers as they go about inspecting and maintaining the safety of public roads and highways.
"Drones could keep workers safer because they won't be going into traffic or hanging off a bridge," said Javier Irizarry, director of the CONECTech Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It would help with physical limitations of the human when doing this kind of work."
Georgia represents one of several states considering how civilian drones could do some jobs for transportation departments, the police and firefighters. The state is also competing to become one of several flight-test regions for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration — a step in the FAA's plan to open up U.S. civilian airspace to drones by 2015.
Drones of all sizes and shapes could help safeguard state roads and bridges, Irizarry said. Small drones with cameras might take off vertically from the back of a truck to help inspect a bridge. [Video: RoboBees Design Poses Intriguing Engineering Challenges]
The larger, aircraft-size Reaper or Global Hawk drones could spend hours surveying traffic conditions or carry light detection and ranging (LIDAR) equipment that can map terrain with millions of laser pulses. That could potentially replace the expensive use of manned helicopters doing the same job.
Irizarry gave the example of the spherical drones that mapped a huge alien base in the 2012 science fiction film "Prometheus" as an analogy for how today's larger drones could aid in above-ground laser mapping. He has also enlisted the help of Eric Johnson, an aerospace engineer at Georgia Tech, to figure out the best role for drones.
"We're going to look at the different divisions that [DOT] has and see how they do things like surveying, safety monitoring or using traffic cameras," Irizarry told TechNewsDaily. "Maybe they could be using drone technology for a similar purpose."
But the human factor also matters. Georgia Tech researchers will spend the next year studying the best control schemes or interfaces for human workers to deploy drones — probably regular video displays rather than more futuristic augmented-reality goggles or technology, Irizarry said. They'll also consider how to retrain human workers if drones end up taking over some jobs.
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