More than half of the 50 state DOTs (36 in total, or 72 percent) now have certified drone pilots on staff or are actively funding centers or programs to operate drones.
In 2016, when the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) first compiled the findings of its inaugural survey on drone usage among state transit authorities, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit received some surprising results.
Back then, the United States was in the midst of a full-on frenzy for testing and purchasing drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), as the technology really began to take hold of the consumer conscious just one year prior. But you wouldn't know that there was a hot new item on the market judging by AASHTO's initial report, which at the time revealed there wasn't a single state transportation department that utilized drones as part of its day-to-day operations.
Drone enthusiasts can be mighty liberal when identifying the origins of this sky-high modern device, with some going as far as pointing to the 1849 siege of Venice, Italy — famous for the unmanned balloon bombs deployed by Austrian forces — as the primitive birth of the drone. Developing advancements for the tech largely fell on the shoulders of the military sector over the next century-plus, until personal drone use first took flight in earnest during the mid-2000s.
Reaching New Drone Usage Heights
Beginning in 2006, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an average of two commercial drone permits per year over the next eight years to early adopters interested in capturing views from above. That all changed in 2015, when that figure spiked to 1,000 permits and then more than tripled by the time 2016's certifications were awarded by the FAA.
Although the state transportation industry lagged behind both the military and general public in recognizing the viability and efficiency of drones for projects that require surveying, the latest review conducted by AASHTO in May 2019 found that more than half of the 50 state DOTs (36 in total, or 72 percent) now have certified drone pilots on staff or are actively funding centers or programs to operate drones. When AASHTO began its research for 2019, there was only one state that disclosed it hadn't used drones whatsoever: Rhode Island. Since publishing, Rhode Island did purchase its very first drone, however, the Associated Press reported.
"The survey is just one example of how state DOTs are investing in the next-generation workforce," said Carlos Braceras, executive director of Utah DOT and AASHTO's 2018-2019 president. "Five years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find any state DOT looking to hire a drone pilot or set up a UAS program — but now we're doing both of those things in a big way."
Using Drones to Save Time, Money
So, in what ways are DOTs using drone technology? As expected, AASHTO discovered that the most frequent missions involve photo and video gathering for infrastructure projects. Rounding out the rest of the top five responses are surveying; inspecting various pieces of infrastructure like bridges, signage, light poles and pavement; responding to emergencies and natural disasters; public education and outreach. In total, AASHTO's survey identified more than 20 unique mission types, including the observation and management of endangered species, underwater vegetation and traffic monitoring.
"In three short years, we've gone from zero to 36 state DOTs executing drone missions internally," said Jim Tymon, AASHTO's executive director. "This giant leap is helping states work safer, smarter and faster than ever before and that adds up to big savings for taxpayers and improved safety for motorists."
Of the 36 state DOTs that maintain an active drone program, 29 of them reported to AASHTO that drones have helped their agencies save a considerable amount of money. According to the Michigan DOT's calculations, for example, manually inspecting the deck of a four-lane divided highway bridge located near a major metro area would take a two-person crew roughly eight hours to complete with a price tag of approximately $4,600. The same job would take one drone pilot and his spotter just one hour to finish at a cost of $1,200 — good for a savings of 74 percent. In addition, drone surveying can circumvent unnecessary and costly lane closures, which MDOT estimated could run as high as nearly $15,000 for this particular hypothetical project.
Building Highways From the Sky
The next frontier for drone flights is expanding upon the rigid (and rightly so) restrictions imposed on UAS pilots by the federal government. As it currently stands, flying drones at night, over people and beyond visual lines of sight is strictly prohibited unless a special waiver for such a mission is granted. The FAA's Integration Pilot Program (IPP) was established in 2017 to give participating governments and select private entities the ability to evaluate a number of risky operational concepts, like flying at night, in order to accelerate the approval of these special authorization missions while addressing any pressing security or privacy concerns. The state DOTs for North Carolina, North Dakota and Kansas all help gather data and information for the FAA's IPP program.
In North Carolina, DOT officials are working alongside private partners to explore how commercial drone delivery might work. Since March, NCDOT pilots have executed hundreds of successful drone package deliveries using predetermined docking stations within a defined airspace.
"Conventional highways have for 60 years been the backbone of economic development in America," Basil Yap, manager of NCDOT's UAS program, told AASHTO. "Now, state DOTs are helping to plan and build highways in the sky. We know that commercial drone delivery is coming and our research is focused on helping small businesses develop this capability."
Relaxing Drone Restrictions
The popularity of drones rising at such a rapid rate over the past five-plus years has caught the attention of U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is looking to relax some of the restrictions on usage as drone pilots become more comfortable with the technology. Shortly after the turn of the new year, Chao proposed new rules that would allow drones to fly overnight and over people without waivers (under certain conditions) and further integrate drones safely into the national airspace system. Chao said easing regulations "will help communities reap the considerable economic benefits of this growing industry and help our country remain a global technology leader."
State DOTs that have staff dedicated drones include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington State, West Virginia and Wisconsin.