Woolpert Deploying Drones to Assess Unstable Roads in the Midwest


Architecture, engineering and geospatial firm Woolpert says it has been hired by Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) to operate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to collect imagery of haul roads throughout the Midwest.

The project, “Characterization of Unpaved Road Conditions Through the Use of Remote Sensing,” is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology.

According to Woolpert, the data collected will help test a set of algorithms developed by MTRI, a branch of Michigan Technological University.

“The contract is to help commercialize computerized analysis and assessment of unpaved roads,” explains Aaron Lawrence, Woolpert’s GIS expert and UAS technology developer. “Michigan Tech has some algorithms to detect potholes, rutting, damage, etc., through high-resolution imagery and 3D point clouds, which would be used to assess and address unstable roads.”

Woolpert says the UAS can provide a fast, safe and cost-effective collection to better understand where road material is lost and what damage there is to these roads.

“If I’ve got a 25-ton truck on a dirt road, and the road bank is unstable, that would be a safety hazard,” Lawrence continues. “The key is identifying these issues before something bad happens.”

Woolpert, which has been a Section 333 exemption holder for commercial UAS since December 2014, also deploys UAS for oil and gas surveying, site design, and civil engineering.

Lawrence adds that gathering imagery and generating 3D models of construction sites and the unpaved roads that provide access to them can help companies monitor construction, inventory material or simulate runoff scenarios to ensure designated retention ponds are collecting material as designed, instead of the surrounding rivers and streams.

Woolpert is scheduled to carry out the MTRI project this spring.

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