Bridge Collapse Disasters to Become a Thing of The Past

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History of Bridge Collapse Disasters
Could Be Nearing End 

Alyssa Martin 

The collapse of bridges is not a new phenomenon.

In most recent memory, there was the Fern Hollow bridge collapse in Pittsburgh that sent several people to the hospital, and then there was the less recent but more devastating Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed thirteen people and sent more than 100 to the hospital. 

The National Bridge Inspection Standards suggest that bridges be routinely inspected every two years, and more frequently if fractures or other defects pertaining to critical members of the structure are discovered. 

At the time of the bridge collapse along I-35 in Minneapolis, more than 17,000 US bridges were without inspection over the previous 24 months. That’s equal to three out of every hundred freeway bridges going without inspection. 

Full bridge collapses are also accompanied by near misses that could have had disastrous outcomes. The crack discovered in the Interstate 40’s Hernando de Soto Bridge spanning between Arkansas and Tennessee is just one such example. 

As of 2021, available data identified more than 200,000 bridges in need of replacement or rehabilitation. Of those +200,000, more than 40,000 bridges were deemed structurally deficient.

FHWA has recently revamped bridge inspection standards, but this was the first time since 2009, and despite advances in remote sensing, structural monitoring, robotics and other technology, the standard means of evaluation for bridges in the United States is still visual inspection, just as it was half a century ago. 

Even when done as close as arm’s-length, as is often required, visual inspection makes it hard to track the true health progression of a bridge over time. 

To address our nation’s huge backlog in structurally deficient bridges in a more accurate and fiscally responsible way, we need to adopt available technologies that can speed inspection time while also increasing the actionable insight that can be gained from these inspections. 


Steps In The Right Direction

In an effort to help state, local, and tribal governments do this, bipartisan legislation aimed at funding a more widespread use of small unmanned aircraft (i.e. drones) in bridge inspections has been proposed.  

This legislative act, House Resolution 5315, also known as the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant Act, would dispense roughly $200,000,000 in federal funding – half for state, local and tribal governments to purchase drones and the other half to train pilots on how to fly them. 

Among others, Ohio Department of Transportation has already found that UAS enabled bridge inspections require 80% less labor than inspections performed by the more conventional means of using snooper trucks. 

bridge inspection saftey
Two men are retrieved beneath the Sakonnet River Bridge after their inspection truck tipped, trapping them suspended over the water in August 2016. The Herald News

An inspection of bridge that might normally require 6 state employees and 48 hours of labor using a snooper truck can be done with just 4 hours of labor by 2 state employees (8 labor hours). 

Not only does this provide savings to the taxpayers, but there are additional savings associated with the supporting operations like traffic control and the economic cost associated with disrupting the public’s use of the roadway.

Minnesota Department of Transportation has seen similar benefits to using drones to conduct inspections. MnDOT has noted savings in labor cost, decreased impact to the public’s use of roadways, as well as lower exposure of inspectors to hazards normally associated with their work. 

These UAS enabled inspections also provide departments of transportation a more thorough record of the asset’s condition at the time of inspection than a visual inspection would ever allow.  

The variety of sensors that can be flown on drones along with the repeatable capture patterns that are possible allow engineers to not just compare images over a series of inspections, engineers and inspectors can also compare measurements of cracks, fractures, and hardware that might change over time. 

So the proof exists. Drones and the sensors they are able to carry are one of several forms of technology that can have a dramatic impact on how bridges are inspected and prioritized for repair and replacement. 

The challenge that remains however, is getting this technology into the hands of more qualified professionals who can both safely and efficiently use it to achieve simlar results as the MnDOT, ODOT, and so many others. 

The Federal Aviation Administration requires pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be licensed. Passing a written examination is required for an FAA Part-107 license. 

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Similar to passing a written drivers test – simply passing the FAA’s Part-107 exam doesn’t make someone a safe operator. With flying in such close proximity to a structure as an inspection requires, bridge inspections are among the most technical types of operations most UAV pilots will experience. 

Public agencies and private companies often require their licensed UAV pilots to attend third-party sUAS flight training before being able to fly operations on the job.

Proposed House Resolution 5315 is so attractive because it aims to provide not only the equipment but the required training that will help transportation agencies adopt this technology as a means to better steward taxpayer dollars.  

Of course, training staff and standing up a self-sustaining sUAS program takes time, and even then some agencies will need to make use of drone service providers to take on more complicated inspection operations. 


What Options Do Departments of Transportation Have? 

Unmanned Aviation Training Institute (UATI) helps public agencies and private companies train their staff to be safe and efficient FAA-Certified Drone Pilots.

The Part-107 Exam Prep course offered by UATI is 4.5 days of instructor-led training. At the end of these 4.5 days, not only are attendees prepared to pass the FAA’s Part-107 Exam to become a commercial sUAS pilot, but our instructor will make sure they’ve scheduled the appointment to take the proctored exam (This increases the likelihood you take the test before you forget the training). 

The UATI philosophy is that unmanned aviation IS AVIATION and that you should TRAIN LIKE IT. 

The UATI team has more than 30 years of combined aviation experience which also includes more than 30,000 hours (about 3 and a half years) of manned aviation experience along with thousands of hours conducting sUAS operations. 

The training program allows pilots to become more confident in unmanned aviation and gives them the tools needed to have a successful flight. 

For more information about UATI’s Part-107 Exam Prep Course or to get a quote for in-person sUAS flight training call 281-857-6543. 


Soaring Eagle Technologies is a leading service provider for aerial mapping as well as critical infrastructure inspections and reporting services.  

The Soaring Eagle team specializes in providing private and public customers reliable utility, energy, and infrastructure inspections for hard-to-reach and complex structures with the latest sUAS technology and remote sensors.


Have Questions About Soaring Eagle’s Mapping and Inspection Services?

Call or text Brendan Alan Barrett at 281-857-6543

Or pre-schedule a time to chat by phone [HERE].



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