Evaluating the Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for Transportation Purposes

For information concerning Phase II of project, click here.

phantom uav

Objectives of the study were to develop, test, and demonstrate how UAV technology can help provide visual inspections from above for a variety of structures and locations of interest to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), including:

Roadway Assets

Final Report: https://www.michigan.gov/mdot/0,4616,7-151-9622_11045_24249-353767--,00.html

Non-Destructive Evaluation Techniques

Creating a state-of-the-practice report covering the use of UAVs for transportation purposes was the first step in understanding how this type of technology could prove beneficial for MDOT. Through this review, different types of sensors, platforms, and applications that have been proven to work for other UAV applications were noted and applied towards this study. These included optical (visible and near-infrared light), thermal, and LiDAR sensors that are attached to single- and multi-rotor helicopters, tethered devices (balloons and blimps) platforms. The following sections describe the types of infrastructure that our UAVs and sensor were prioritized to sense, based on MDOT input and the work plan.

unpaved road assessment


Roadway Assets and Traffic Monitoring

UAV Based Monitoring

Lower cost UAVs have a shorter flight time and can typically be used for short term monitoring (30 minutes). Imagery is collected through HD video or pictures taken with a camera. From the UAV imagery, feature based algorithms and classifiers can be “trained” to detect and track roadway assets. The tracker is generalized such that any type of roadway assets could be detected and tracked; e.g., different types of signs and indicators, guard rails, and lamps.


traffic asset detection


UAVs can also be used for crash scene documentation. During a mock incident, the project team’s role was to work closely with the MSP, MDOT, and other participants to show how UAV-based imaging could provide useful data on a practical basis during an emergency response incident representative of where lives were at risk and information was needed as quickly possible that could be collected safely. This information was made available to the incident command center as soon as the hexacopter landed. The traffic monitoring blimp was rapidly moved over to the incident area to make the video feed available as well.



The Traffic Monitoring Blimp

Tethered blimps can provide near-real time traffic monitoring, transmitting imagery to ground based receivers over extended periods of time. Aerostats/blimps are useful for applications that require temporary but persistent observation of an area on the ground. Blimps can be sized to payload requirements and designed to weather conditions. The blimp used is ~15 feet long and 5.5 feet in diameter; it requires about 300 square feet (8.5 square meters) of helium (just about one tank of helium) to fill. Net lift is ~8 pounds (3.6 kilograms); working lift is approximately 50 percent of net lift or 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). The blimp can be safely flown in winds up to 15 miles per hour. It was used to demonstrate traffic monitoring during four days of the 2014 ITS World Congress in Detroit, MI.


traffic monitoring blimp


Confined Space Inspection

Micro-UAVs with camera and sensor attachments can be flown in confined spaces, such as pump stations and culverts, to determine if they are safe enough to send a person into. They have the ability to send HD video of the confined space back to the operators’ cell phone as well as being saved to a memory card during the flight. Smaller UAV were better to use because they could get closer to walls, obstacles, and fly through smaller spaces.



Bridge Asset Management and Condition Assessment



Interstate-96 is a major freeway system and connects eastern (Detroit) Michigan to western (Muskegon) Michigan. The expressway exhibiting major roadway distress had not experienced any major reconstruction projects since opening in 1971. Due to the interstate’s poor condition, MDOT conducted a major reconstruction project known as “96 Fix”, stretching from Newburgh to Telegraph roads. The interstate was completely shut down for six months from late-March through late-September of 2014. Seven miles of road, 37 overpasses (bridges), and 24 entrance/exit ramps were either completely replaced or updated, costing approximately $148 million dollars (www.96fix.com).

Characterization of Bridge Elements

Structure from Motion (SfM) techniques were employed to create 3D models and fused with thermal data for a complete evaluation of bridge condition through automated detections of surface and sub-surface defects. The automated spall detection algorithm developed by Brooks and Dobson was applied to high-resolution 3D elevation models (DEM) to detect surface defects such as spalls, potholes, cracks, etc. The information was then combined with thermal data and automated delamination detection was run to find sub-surface defects that are evident in thermal, but not visible imagery.


optical imagery thermal IR imagery spall detection

Merriman East (150 square feet, 4.4% spalling)


January 2017 - TRB 96th Annual Meeting Compendium of Papers includes MTRI's "Transportation Infrastructure Assessment through the Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles." Read more about it.

March 2016 - Project featured in Transportation Tomorrow - 'New Visions From Above & Beyond: Multiple Uses for UAVs in Transportation. View the episode.

November 2015 - Traffic Technology International reports on regulations with UAV's and tethered blimps. Read more on how tethered blimps enable applications beyond current UAV regulations.

November 2015 - Colin Brooks from MTRI presenting at UAS Reno 2015. Watch the presentation on YouTube.

July 2015 - MTRI was mentioned for their traffic monitoring blimp in Traffic Technology International. Read more about it.

May 2015 - MDOT Research Administration has published the project's Final Report:

April 2015 - MDOT Research Spotlight on Phase I UAV Applications project. Read the full article.

January 2015 - MTRI's Colin Brooks was interviewed by WILX News 10 in Lansing, MI about use of UAVs in Michigan. Watch the interview.

September 2014 - UAV demonstration video presented at the Traffic Monitoring Center during the 2014 ITS World Congress in Detroit, Michigan

A link to a preview of demonstrations given at the 2014 ITS World Congress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xnTP4ZA1Nk

For Additional Information

Colin Brooks
Senior Research Scientist

Steve Cook P.E.
Project Manager
Michigan Department of Transportation



Bergen Hexacopter


Small UAV

Micro UAV


Optical DSLR



Forward Looking IR



Non-Destructive Evaluation Techniques



Overlapping Imagery

3DOBS and UAVs were used to inspect and characterize conditions, including spalling/potholes, cracks, etc.


Thermal IR Imagery

Delimination can be detected by the interruption of heat flow on a concrete body.



Light detection and ranging sensor was used to create a 3-D model of the bridge. Elevation and intensity are displayed in this model, consisting of more than 186 million points.

These technologies were featured at a demonstration during the 2014 ITS World Congress in Detroit, Sept. 2014