Drones to be used to inspect gravel roads

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.

“We want to help them save money and repair the roads more efficiently,” Colin 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.