Can Drones Help Cities Fix Potholes?

November 23, 2021

Leveraging Drone Flight Services for Your City


In most places, the state level Department of Transportation oversees the maintenance of major roads. But the maintenance of smaller roads, like town roads or roads that go through neighborhoods, is usually left to local municipalities.

This is the case in Winchester, Virginia, where the city must supervise the regular upkeep of its public streets—all 220 miles of them.

A key part of this maintenance is assessing the current condition of the pavement. To do this, city employees typically have to shut down a section of the road and photograph it while walking along on foot. 

These photos are then analyzed by an expert in pavement conditioning, who will determine whether the roads need work or are in good enough condition to be left alone for the moment.

The process is both slow and inexact since the person taking the pictures must decide what to photograph and ignore, allowing for the possibility that problems might go unnoticed due to a lack of data. Further, these assessments have to be done once a year, creating a constant need for the city to shut down sections of its roads to take photos. 

What If Pavement Inspections Could Be Done by Drone?

Keeping the streets in good condition is important to the residents of Winchester—in 2011, city street maintenance was identified as the number one priority for the city council.

But the pavement assessments that inform maintenance decisions are slow and expensive, not to mention frustrating for drivers who have to use alternate routes while they’re taking place.

To see if the process could be improved, city leaders in Winchester wanted to test whether drones could collect visual data reflecting the pavement conditions by air, thus avoiding the need to manage it manually by walking around an area shooting pictures with a handheld camera.

This initiative became the second test undertaken as part of DroneUp’s Innovative Municipalities Project in Winchester. (The first test, to see if drones could read water meters, was covered last week, and the other three tests will be covered over the next three weeks.)

The goal of the test was to see if a drone could be used to collect all of the visual data the city needed for its pavement inspections. Beyond just taking photos, the DroneUp team wanted to use this data to create detailed 3D models of the street that would show the condition of the pavement.

How the Pavement Inspection Test Was Designed

The pavement inspection test took place on a Tuesday in September, along a predetermined section of streets in Winchester that span about two miles.

That morning, the DroneUp team arrived early and established a flight path for the test. DroneUp leaders had considered using autonomous flight for the mission. Still, they ultimately decided to fly manually so they could ensure reliability in the data they collected and efficiency in the process of managing it.

Before flying the mission, the Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) drove the two-mile area and identified the best locations for DroneUp’s Propeller Aeropoints. Aeropoints are Ground Control Point (GCP) equipment designed specifically for drone mapping. They enable pilots to collect accurate locational data without needing a GPS expert on-site, which can then be used to create accurate 3D models.

To work, the Aeropoints must be placed strategically along a drone’s flight path in locations that have the open sky above them, with no obstructions between the GCP device and the atmosphere.

In total, the pilot placed eight Aeropoints along the flight path that morning. After the equipment was in place, the pilot began flying with the drone’s camera pointed at the road, collecting visual data as it passed. To ensure complete coverage of the roads, the pilot ended up conducting 13 different flights that morning.

Results from the Test

The test was a success! 

The DroneUp team collected sufficient visual data for the entire sample area of a high enough quality to allow for a reliable pavement assessment. 

After the DroneUp team captured the pavement assessment data by drone, they shared it with Atlas10, which provides certified inspectors for pavement assessments.

Atlas10 took the drone’s data and analyzed it to create a detailed report about the condition of the roads along the test route. The report included recommendations for maintenance and several 3D maps showing exactly where the work was needed. 

What’s Next?

The DroneUp team found that the most significant benefits to using a drone for pavement inspections instead of a manual approach are:

  • No road closures. Visual data can be collected without shutting down the road.
  • Greater coverage. The drone photographs everything on the road instead of picking specific areas to photograph, leaving less room for error.
  • Speed. The approach has the potential to be a lot faster than the traditional approach if optimized correctly.

This first test proved that a drone can be used for pavement inspections, but it also revealed some areas where data collection could be sped up and made more efficient.

For future iterations of this effort, the DroneUp team is interested in further optimizing the approach by:

  • Using a flight planning platform capable of corridor map planning (it’s estimated that this one change could make data collection by 2-3 times faster).
  • Testing different times of day for data collection to avoid congestion on the roads, which can interfere with this work.
  • Using DroneUp’s 107.39 waiver, which allows its pilots to fly over people.

Pavement inspections are just one example of how drones can support infrastructure maintenance. These days, drones are also being used to collect visual data for bridge inspections, power line inspections, wastewater inspections—in fact, almost any kind of inspection that requires visual data collection can benefit from the use of drones.

About DroneUp’s Innovative Municipalities Project 

The Innovative Municipalities Project is an initiative created by DroneUp to offer drone flight services to cities to help them become more efficient while realizing significant savings.

The project’s core focus is to test how drones can help cities improve their work from one day to the next by leveraging drone technology.

Through close collaborations between DroneUp and city governments, project leaders identify and test custom-built solutions for each city’s unique need to employ advanced drones and software to help cities save money, improve efficiency, and, in some instances, keep people out of harm’s way.

Learn more about DroneUp’s Innovative Municipalities Project.