February 20, 2017
by Michal Mazur
Among their many other applications, drones have the potential to transform transportation infrastructure.
Next time you’re stuck in traffic or commuting via a metropolitan transit system, consider how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could help us dramatically improve existing roads and railways and reshape how they’re built to accommodate the growing need for safer, faster ground transportation.
According to our initial report on the commercial applications of drone technology, the total addressable market value of drone-powered business operations is more than $127 billion. With a total value of $45.2 billion, the industry with the best prospects for drone applications is infrastructure. Transport infrastructure—roads and railways—in particular can benefit from drone technology more and faster than other industries. After all, roads and railways remain modern society’s principal means of transportation and growth.
The key positive areas that drone technology offers are benefits for the operators of roads and railways, including:
- Investment monitoring: The use of drones combined with 3-D modeling software can help road and railway operators in the design phase by providing precise geospatial data, limiting the need to readjust plans and designs, and ultimately lowering costs.
- Maintenance: Keeping roads and railways in proper working order is key in an era when people spend many hours a week commuting. Drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and scanners can replace humans in conducting precise inspections so physical repairs and updates can be made faster.
- Asset inventory: Cataloging hundreds or thousands of individual components in large rail yards is time-consuming and labor-intensive. A solution is being developed to allow drones to autonomously detect damage to rail cars, significantly speeding up the inspection and stock-taking processes, and cutting the costs of operating and managing a rail fleet.
Some of today’s drone applications hint at what the future holds and how drones can help improve the construction, maintenance, and safety of roads and railways.
Virtual models streamline new construction
In a new report, we dig deeper into the potential of drone technology in transport infrastructure and outline promising future applications for drones. We look forward to a day when transport infrastructure operators will implement drone technology that is integrated with building information modeling (BIM) to improve the construction process and ease post-construction, operation, and maintenance.
BIM improves the efficiency of construction projects by creating a virtual model of what’s being built. This allows builders to adjust and improve plans digitally to avoid the costs of having to physically change or rebuild parts of the structure. Autonomous drones can act as surveyors, snapping aerial photos of all quadrants of a site before, during, and after construction so complete visual data can be added to the virtual model to amplify BIM’s benefits.
Giving human workers X-ray vision
In the future, crews working on building new transport-related structures—or any large complicated building—may be able to rely on augmented and virtual reality technologies combined with data gathered by autonomous drones to streamline construction and inspection activity. Imagine construction workers donning augmented reality helmets so as they walk a site they can see digital information that, overlaid on top of the physical structures, gives them X-ray vision and helps them more quickly identify potential problems or issues that might delay the completion of the project.
Saving people from perilous but necessary tasks
Drones could become essential equipment for the construction of transportation infrastructure for the reasons stated above—and also because they can accomplish tasks that are often too dangerous for human workers to do. We foresee future drones performing dangerous tasks at great heights—to repair or improve a section of a bridge or elevated railway, for example—so we won’t have to risk the human employees’ safety to move, assemble, weld, and attach parts.
Ensuring safety and privacy protection as UAVs take off
Taking full advantage of drone technology will require road and railway operators to overcome certain challenges related to aviation risk and privacy. Drones must be accounted for in air traffic management systems so UAVs and manned aircraft can use the same air space safely. UAVs can collect aerial images that a transportation operator needs—but they might collect images of private property at the same time. To date, there are not yet clear rules governing how companies should store such data, what types of data should not be collected, or how individuals and companies can defend their privacy rights.
Meanwhile, we expect that government financial and regulatory support, improvements in data processing and accessibility, and an uptick in the development and refinement of UAV technologies will drive the adoption of drone technology in transportation infrastructure.
As more companies recognize these opportunities and work to overcome the challenges, other innovations such as machine learning, big data processing and analysis, and geospatial visualization tools will help drive success for road and railway operators committed to reaping the benefits of drone technology.