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NY Thruway Authority begins pilot program using drones to inspect bridges, overpasses

A blue drone can be seen within the metal beams of a bridge.
A bluer drone (center) can be seen within the metal beams of a bridge.

The New York State Thruway Authority is partnering with Syracuse-based NUAIR on a pilot program to have drones inspect bridges and overpasses. Drones cost less, can get the job done faster and are safer for workers.

Ken Stewart, president and CEO of NUAIR, the nonprofit drone research organization, said New York state has a multi-billion dollar traffic congestion problem. Part of that problem comes from bridge inspections on the Thruway, which involves closing down a lane for a day or two, so workers can manually do their jobs from big, expensive trucks.

“Drones take 30 minutes and you don’t have to close traffic, don’t have to close a lane,” Stewart said. “So, it’s safer, safer for motorists, safer for highway safety workers and more cost-effective than a quarter-million dollar truck.”

Stewart said 75% of goods shipped across New York are done so on trucks, so congestion or a lane closure impedes commerce.

“Now, you’re freeing up commerce to flow freely across the state,” Stewart said. “It’s highly impactful to everybody. You want your stuff delivered on time. You don’t want to sit in traffic.”

NUAIR has already started flying drones to inspect bridges; looking for deficiencies like rust, corrosion and cracks. The Thruway Authority will expand use of the technology if it can replace the existing manual labor and get staff trained to fly drones. But Stewart said that doesn’t mean drones will be taking away people’s jobs.

“The drones are just another tool in the tool belt that they can use that’s more cost-effective,” Stewart said. “They still need the other tools that they have. They need engineers that are trained and looking at bridges. Just a different way of capturing the data.”

The pilot program could also help the Thruway Authority put the infrastructure in place for commercial drones to fly alongside highways.

Tom Magnarelli is a freelance reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area.