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Columbia Business Monthly

UofSC, Clemson Researchers Use Drones To Make S.C. Bridges Safer

Researchers at the University of South Carolina College of Engineering and Computing and Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences are working together to study how drones and robots can be used to better assess South Carolina’s 9,401 bridges.

The research project, funded by the South Carolina Department of Transportation, is led by UofSC Associate Dean for Research Paul Ziehl.

“We are looking at evolving methods to help SCDOT achieve a better picture of the structural health of the state’s bridges,” Ziehl says. “We want to help bridge inspectors do their jobs faster, more safely, and with results that are as good as can be achieved through current bridge inspection practices.”

For the project, Ziehl is working closely with Tommy Cousins and Brandon Ross at Clemson. Ziehl is focusing on how aerial drones can better assess bridges above water, while Cousins and Ross are focusing on culverts and how to best assess bridge scour beneath the water’s surface.

“I view this as us being the Consumer Report testers for the SCDOT,” Ross says. “We are going out, trying new technologies, and finding their pros, cons, limits, and benefits.”

Since the project began in January 2018, the team has conducted laboratory testing, assessed the most effective technologies, started field-testing on local bridges in Lexington County, and modified the scope of the project to include load-testing. Next, the team will develop machine-learning algorithms to predict future health of the structures and create a cost-benefit analysis comparing the new technology to current assessment methods.

The research team expects that when the project is completed in June of 2020, its findings will be implemented by SCDOT to assist with load-testing of the state’s bridges and for post-natural disaster assessments. The aim is to utilize aerial drones and other systems to supplement bridge inspections conducted by trained personnel, not to replace them entirely.

Ziehl says the technology can also be used as a scanning tool in difficult-to-access areas. For example, after a hurricane or a flood, drones may be used to see if a bridge has been displaced or otherwise damaged, even if roads to that bridge are closed or impassible.

South Carolina is not the first state to consider the benefits of using drone and robotic assessments—last month, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials released the results of a survey showing that DOTs in nearly every state are now using drone technology.

Ziehl believes South Carolina is in a unique position to utilize the new method of assessments because of the sheer number of bridges – 2.15 per 1,000 people. He also points to the the recent influx of manufacturing in the state and the threat of hurricanes and other flooding-related disasters.

“Consequently,” he says, “the number of bridges that need to be inspected and rated drives these types of automated, force-multiplying technologies.”

Ross says that the importance of the project is what drew the two colleges together.

He says, “When else do you have Clemson and USC working together like this? This is a big deal for everybody in South Carolina and just isn’t a time for us to draw a line in the turf.”