High-tech solutions for low-tech problems

HOUGHTON – Michigan Technological University researchers are outfitting high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles to inspect some less modern infrastructure elements: gravel roads.

The research team, based out of the Michigan Tech Research Institute in Ann Arbor, is hoping to partner with a private company and have their UAVs – commonly known as drones – available for Departments of Transportation and contractors when expected FAA regulations make flying the vehicles commercially legal, likely by the end of next year.

MTRI Senior Research Scientist Colin Brooks said the purpose of the technology is to save DOTs money by helping them pinpoint gravel roadway problems more efficiently than if they had relied on complaints and physically sending people out to assess problems.

“We want to help them save money and repair the roads more efficiently,” Brooks said. “It’s better than driving all over the place.”

The UAV’s primary components, a six-bladed remote control helicopter that can fly by remote control or on its own from one GPS waypoint to another – if that becomes legal – and a 36-megapixel camera, are both available off the shelf. That leaves MTRI scientists to focus on job-specific modifications and the automated imaging software that will help the systems earn their keep.

“For less than $10,000 we can have a system that flies unpaved roads,” Brooks said.

He said the UAV’s are essentially ready for market, with team members now focusing on reaching out to potential business partners and clients, and developing better algorithms to help computers analyze the images the drones will gather.

Michigan Tech professor and Houghton-based team member Tim Colling is an expert on road maintenance who works regularly with the Michigan Department of Transportation. He helped MTRI garner a $2.4 million federal DOT grant in 2011 that’s funded the UAV research, and has shared his expertise with the project ever since.

Colling said the demand for better analysis systems grew out of a strategy called asset management that helps DOTs get maximum benefit from their road-repair dollars.

“If you do repairs way too soon it won’t give you the benefit, but if you wait you’ll have lasting damage,” he said.

Pinpointing the most cost-effective opportunities for repair is where the UAV photos and analysis enter the picture.

“We’re using technology that’s relatively cheap to collect better data to make better decisions,” Colling said.

With UAVs flying at about 80 to 100 feet, Brooks said the systems are able to accurately photograph representative stretches of road in 3-D, with high enough resolution to see even minor surface variations.

“If you’re looking at it with a 36-megapixel camera, you can see individual pieces of gravel,” he said. “Any pothole greater than half an inch in depth, I’m going to be able to see.”

Logging 100- to 200-foot segments of road each mile, he said, is generally enough to provide an accurate assessment of a road’s overall condition. Photographing each of those segments takes only about 15 minutes, he added.

Brooks said MTRI is also working on a second UAV project, funded by a $250,000 grant from the Michigan DOT, to design UAVs that will fly in culverts and other enclosed spaces. Cameras on those UAVs are designed mainly to gather real-time images rather than to record, for basic inspection and to determine whether it’s safe to send a worker into the space.

“Even if all you do is send out a live video feed, these hand-held systems are less than $2,000,” Brooks said. “That’s cheap compared to putting a person at risk.”