Can drones provide value to State and Local Transportation Departments?

Paul Wheeler and Drones

That’s the question that we will explore in today’s show.  Paul Wheeler is part of the Technology Advancement Team at the Utah Dept. of Transportation. There he has served in many roles, including the Lead UAS Coordinator, survey technology advisor, lead of the 3D visualization group, Cadd support specialist, and construction surveyor. He is an instrument rated private pilot and has helped multiple flight schools develop interactive training for their programs and is working to fully implement the UAS program within the Utah Department of Transportation. In this edition of the Drone Radio Show, Paul talks about the efforts and results of using drones to support the mission of a public transportation agency.

In this Episode

  • Introduction. Paul Wheeler is the Lead Coordinator for the Utah Department of Transportation in the Technology Advancement Team. Paul has worked with the Department for 20 years and is now leading the Department’s use of UAS systems to improve efficiency and safety.
  • UTAH DOT Drone Program. The Technology Advancement Team had been researching the use of drones for a while, and in July 2016, three drones were purchased to test and evaluate. At the time, the team intended to use the drones bridge inspections, land surveying and traffic monitoring.
  • Use of Drones. The Utah Department of Transportation has been using drones for about one year. Paul describes some of the ways in which drones are being used, including land surveying, bridge inspections, monitoring traffic flows, detecting structural delamination, accident reconstruction, monitoring construction quantities, landslide assessments, avalanche control and conducting snow pack assessments to aid in opening roads. The Department plans on completing an evaluation of how well the drones performed in these instances, the results achieved and benefits derived.
  • Advice to Other Transportation Agencies. Paul’s advice to other agencies thinking about starting a drone program are that they should first develop their policies and procedures. They should also develop a communications plan to proactively inform and educate citizens on the program, drones, how they’ll be used by the agency and the benefits to be derived.
  • Key Value of Drones. For the Utah Department of Transportation, the major selling points for keeping the drone program going or even expanding it are that drones (a) provide a huge savings in time, (b) allow the staff to do things that they never could have done, and (c) increase the safety factor significantly.
  • Policies and Procedures. Paul discusses the procedures that are used to secure a drone for a mission. The procedures also outline the use of the data or imagery collected.
  • 2018 Commercial UAVExpo. Paul will be speaking at this year’s Commercial UAVExpo on October 24-26 in Las Vegas. He’ll be talking about how transportation agencies are using drones to advance their mission, how to get a program started and the successful applications.
  • Desirable Features. In terms of the technology, the key features that Technology Advancement Team have found to be the most valuable are the ease of flight that the new systems deliver. The sensors, cameras and advanced auto pilot features make it easy for the systems to be deployed.
  • Other Notes. To date, the Technology Advancement Team has not included any maintenance requirements for drones in their budgets or operations plan. This may change as the Team gains more experience with the systems. Within the Utah State Government, there are a few other organizations using drones, in addition to the Transportation Department.
  • Challenges. According to Paul, the biggest challenge in developing a UAS Program has been getting pilots trained. The cost of the higher end drones is also a hurdle. While Part 107 provides a lot of flexibility, there are still some regulations that limit what the Department can actually do with the technology (like flying over people).
  • Closing. Paul closes by saying that drones are an excellent tool for not only transportation agencies but a lot of companies they have a variety of uses. They may not be an end-all solution, but they can help to improve productivity, safety and to public agencies use taxpayers’ money more wisely.

Mentioned Links