Drones flying like birds to perform disaster-averting bridge checks

The electronic birds will get into places that humans can’t work, identify problems quicker and complete inspections faster

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A research project is trying to find out if drones can be used to scan bridges to check for faults and prevent disasters like the Genoa bridge collapse.

The drones, operating like a team of birds, could be recharged themselves by feeding on power grids as they fly around bridges checking for infrastructure faults.

Scientists at the University of Southern Denmark (USD) see the drone birds getting into places that humans can’t work, identifying problems quicker and completing inspections faster.

In August 2018, the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, collapsed, killing 43 people. In March 2018, a bridge collapsed in Florida killing four people.

In 2019, two people died when the Pont de Mirepoix collapsed, when a report to the Senate estimated about 25,000 bridges France were in need of urgent repair work.

In Italy this year there were 20 badly-damaged motorway bridges under investigation, 200 tunnels that did not comply with European standards and 1,000 viaducts where ownership is unclear, according to reporting by Euronews.
"You can compare the system to a flock of birds," said Emad Samuel Malki Ebeid, who is co-ordinating the project. "If we can get our drone birds to eat from the power cables, they will have the energy to fly out and monitor the terrain."

The biggest technological hurdle is getting all of the technologies to work together – to fly, inspect, report, and recharge the drones autonomously.

Associate Professor Ebeid told The National: "We see a minimum of four drones working together.

Drone bridges illustration. Courtesy University of Southern Denmark
The illustration shows how the bird-like drone can link to power cables. Courtesy University of Southern Denmark

“For bridges, it is very challenging [for people] to reach underneath the bridge to do a proper inspection. It may take months to do so. I would think drones are at least 10 times faster than humans to inspect infrastructures.

“[The drones] can reach unreachable areas such as underneath bridges or corners or the tops of the railway cables supporters. Drones can get closer to objects and get better pictures.

“Drones with Artificial Intelligence and the recharging system can operate for longer times and report automatically when they find faults in the infrastructure under inspection.”

The drone birds will be looking for at least 10 different types of infrastructure faults, including worn or torn bearings, rust and other damage.

Associate Professor Emad Samuel Malki Ebeid (centre) with two students. University of Southern Denmark
Associate Professor Emad Samuel Malki Ebeid (centre) with two students. University of Southern Denmark

Inspections are currently carried out using helicopters.

Preliminary research has shown that 71 per cent of Europe’s bridges are within 3km of high voltage power cables, and now the USD team hopes they can tap that for drone recharging.

The team aims to conduct the first automatic drone inspections by the beginning of 2022.

“For the bridge inspection, the vision is to let them fly at the beginning of the bridge and they will collaborate to inspect the bridge,” Prof Ebeid said.

“For the railway inspection, the aim is to divide the railway into length sections, then a team of drones flies, inspects, and recharges by going back and forth.

“Based on the shape of the structure, the drones form themselves to get a closer look. They talk together through radio channels and to the cloud using an internet connection.”