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Missouri S&T engineers are building flying robots to inspect aging bridges

A drone flies near a bridge
Sodapix | Thinkstock

Missouri could soon send flying drones to the state's bridges, using them to doing difficult and dangerous work long done by workers.

About 56,000 bridges in the United States require major repairs, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Missouri ranks No. 4 in the country for its number of structurally deficient bridges. 


However, providing maintenance and repairs can be challenging. The work can require shutting down lanes of traffic, and it can also risk the lives of bridge inspectors.

"If you put the worker on a busy highway, sometimes climbing on a cable if it's a river crosswalk bridge, you can imagine how dangerous it will be for these inspectors," said Genda Chen, a civil engineering professor a Missouri University of Science and Technology. 

Flying robotic drones could help make that work safer and more efficient, Chen said. He and other researchers at Missouri S&T are programming unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to help inspect bridges.

They aim to build drones that can capture high-resolution images of corroded structures and other parts that require attention. They also plan to build drones with a robotic arm that can seal cracks and perform other repairs.

The drones would not take jobs away from bridge inspectors, Chen said. 

"Often, general public has the perception that with advanced technologies, human or bridge inspectors don't need to do work," he said. "We do need the bridge inspector to guide the operation of this advanced technology." 

The project is funded by a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Chen hopes to demonstrate a prototype by late summer of 2019. 

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