Drones which are enabled with artificial intelligence (AI) are set to revolutionise critical inspection work on more than 6,000 bridges across New South Wales including on the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.
In its latest announcement, the NSW Government says digital engineers from Transport for NSW have completed a three-week trial of AI-enabled drones to inspect the condition of part of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and other bridges across the state.
Minister for Metropolitan Roads Natalie Ward said the technology will help to ensure that bridges across the NSW road network are maintained to the highest possible standard.
“We are thrilled to be embracing modern technology to ensure infrastructure like our iconic 90-year-old Sydney Harbour Bridge is preserved for this generation and the next,” Ward said.
“The sky’s the limit when it comes to this technology. It is a game-changer for our preventative maintenance inspections, which would normally take months to complete, but can now be undertaken in less than half the time.”
The announcement comes as asset owners around the world are using drones to inspect the condition of important infrastructure.
Using drones, engineers can inspect assets more quickly, undertake inspections more frequently, perform inspections in difficult to access locations and avoid the need to put workers in hazardous environments when undertaking inspection work.
When combined with reality capture and processing software, the images can be used to generate 3D models showing the real-life condition of an asset.
This can further be combined with previous imagery to assess any deterioration or change in condition over time.
In the case of Transport for NSW, the organisation needs to inspect and maintain more than six-thousand bridges across the state.
With the Sydney Harbour Bridge alone containing 4,100 elements and 485,000 square meters of steel and paint, time and cost associated with this is substantial.
The trials took place at the southern part of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from Dawes Point Park.
Trials were also carried out at Gladesville Bridge over Parramatta River and at other bridges in regional NSW.
Software and equipment used as part of the trial was the ‘Skydio 2+ Enterprise software provided by Australian company Sphere Drones.
According to the company’s blog, the software gives the drones the ability to get up close to the structure of a bridge and to capture data whilst dynamically avoiding trusses and other structural elements.
This overcame a limitation with the existing drone fleet of Transport for NSW in which drones need to be flown manually for most of the time.
This increases the risk of crashes and also increases the stress and workload on the pilot – which in turn impacts the quality of imagery provided.
The software also automates the data processing, meaning that pilots are needed only to set up the scan.
With the testing complete, the government is set to roll out the new system permanently across the state.
It has trained more than 20 drone pilots and has added water-resistant drowns to its fleet so as to enable maintenance crews to inspect the network in the rain and also inspect underwater structures.
Over the past six years, it has collaborated with major players in the field of autonomous and artificial intelligent drones.
As well as Skydio, this includes the CSIRO and drone autonomy firm Emesent.
Minister for Regional Transport and Roads Sam Farraway said the new fleet of drones can access hard-to-reach areas with ease, capturing the structure up close in 4K high-resolution images, and rendering three-dimensional maps of their surroundings.
“Transport for NSW is responsible for maintaining thousands of kilometres of roadway and more than 6000 bridges across the state and is always looking at ways to make the maintenance process safer, less disruptive, more efficient and more cost effective,” Farraway said.
“This technology has the potential to play an important role in rapidly assessing the structure of our regional bridges and road networks following natural disasters.”
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