MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — As drones become more widely used in everyday life, one state agency is taking these unmanned aerial vehicles to new heights.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is studying how drones can make all of us safer by looking for defects in bridges. It will soon begin the second phase of a study that will compare the visual images captured by drones and human bridge inspectors.

That could, some day, reduce both cost and risk. Let’s be clear about this, it’s not about replacing human bridge inspectors with these unmanned aircraft. But rather taking advantage of an extremely useful tool.

Drones can often get into places where people can’t.

Ever since the catastrophic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, MnDOT has been working to improve its bridge inspection program. It’s about to take a high-tech turn.

“But there are areas that we can’t access regularly or it’s too dangerous to access,” Jennifer Zink with MnDOT said.

This summer, Zink and other MnDOT engineers began studying the use of drones to help visualize, record and capture bridge infrastructure. The goal is to essentially compare results with what human eyes would do.

“You’ll be able to see in real time what the drone is seeing so we’ll know if there’s something we have to investigate further by getting up close,” Zink said.

“Why send a human life out there when you can accomplish the same thing with a small UAV?” Drone expert Charles Eide said.

Eide is a local drone expert and trains UAV operators around the country. He’s not surprised MnDOT is putting them to work.

“The big question we have to ask ourselves is that if there’s a tool that doesn’t endanger human lives and can do as good or even a better job, why wouldn’t you use that tool and I think in this instance MnDOT really gets that,” Eidi said.

Early results of the study look promising, so MnDOT will expand the study this fall. It hopes to win federal approval to expand the use of a high flying tool that could some day make a risky job both safer and less costly.

Phase two of that study takes place this fall through next spring. They’ll use these drones to examine the underside of the Blatnik Bridge in Duluth. And with the massive St. Croix Bridge coming, there’s already visions of how drones could make that huge inspection process more efficient.

Bill Hudson

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