Drone technology used to maintain historic Stone Arch Bridge

Intel announced a collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Collins Engineers earlier this month that uses drones to inspect the bridge.

The Stone Arch Bridge as seen on Wednesday, Dec. 12. Intel and MnDOT will be using drones to evaluate the bridge and any repairs it may need.

Jack Rodgers

The Stone Arch Bridge as seen on Wednesday, Dec. 12. Intel and MnDOT will be using drones to evaluate the bridge and any repairs it may need.

Imani Cruzen

Old is meeting new in Minneapolis as modern technology is being implemented to maintain a historic site.

Intel publicly announced its plan to use drones to inspect the Stone Arch Bridge earlier this month in a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Collins Engineers. The bridge is one of many structures across the state that are now being inspected with the technology.

Though drones have been used for bridge inspections before, this is the first time that they will be used for the Stone Arch Bridge, said Jennifer Wells, state bridge inspection engineer with MnDOT.

“The Stone Arch Bridge is obviously a monumental, historic bridge that is in everybody’s eye right now,” Wells said. “It’s an old bridge so it needs a lot of work, but it’s an icon of the city.”

Bridge inspectors will collect images of the structure using drones to create a 3D model. This allows the department to improve their inspections and track changes to the bridge, said Cindy Ng, Intel Drone Group’s head of marketing, in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

Although the plan was only just announced this month, work on it has already begun. Images were taken of the bridge by drone during the week of Oct. 15, said Barritt Lovelace, regional manager with Collins Engineers, but bridge inspection season won’t start until the spring. Lovelace said that Collins Engineers and MnDOT are able to provide the expertise in bridge inspection, but Intel develops the drones and software needed to collaborate.

The Stone Arch Bridge is an ideal candidate for using drones because of its location and size, Lovelace said.

“It’s a long bridge, so it’s a lot of area to cover during an inspection. And it’s a masonry bridge so there’s a lot of mortar and so that’s pretty time-consuming to document all that during a normal inspection,” Lovelace said. “Just using pencil and paper to try to detail all that out takes a long time.”

Drones help increase access to parts of the bridge that might be normally blocked by retaining walls or other structural details, Wells said. Bridge inspections might normally require specialized machines which can end up blocking pedestrian and traffic access to a bridge.

Ng said using drones also saves taxpayer money by conserving time and improving inspection safety and accuracy.

MnDOT is beginning to implement a drone program for structure inspections across Minnesota after receiving a federal grant several weeks ago, Wells said.

The Intel drone is already being incorporated into other projects, Lovelace said.

“We’re not trying to replace inspectors or replace all of the inspections with drones because it doesn’t work on every bridge by any means,” Lovelace said. “But even if we can do a small percentage of bridges with drones, we can save money and improve the quality of the inspection.”