Past Meets Future as Drone Technology Helps Maintain Minneapolis’s Historic Stone Arch Bridge

Standing strong for over 100 years, the landmark Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis has withstood the test of history. With the passing of time, however, history inevitably comes face to face with modernity. As for any structure with such a scale and history of the Stone Arch Bridge, maintenance and upkeep become increasingly necessary and more and more time consuming. While the bridge itself acts as a window into the city’s past, the processes by which it is now to be maintained gives us a glimpse into the future.

The Intel Falcon 8+ drone conducts a visual inspection of the historic Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. Intel Corporation

Through a partnership with Collins Engineers and Intel, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has begun using Intel Falcon 8+ drones to inspect and maintain parts of the Stone Arch Bridge, an effort that aims to save time and money when it comes to upkeep. According to Cindy Ng, head of marketing at Intel’s done group, this technology has already “increased efficiency, reducing work hours by 28 percent. The work resulted in an inspection cost savings of approximately 40 percent that could save taxpayers an estimated $160,000 over the next 10 years.”

Despite the reduction in time and money spent, this technology will not actually replace any methods already conducted by human engineers and inspectors, meaning no jobs should be lost.

“This technology will not replace any current processes,” MnDOT’s state bridge inspection engineer, Jennifer Wells, explained to Twin Cities Geek. “It is simply a tool to enhance bridge inspection access and data. The benefits of utilizing drones for inspections include time savings, cost savings in most cases, better access, reduced traffic impacts with no lane closures, increased safety to inspectors by not being in lane closures, and increased longevity of underbridge inspection vehicles as they can be used in a more streamlined fashion. Drones can also be used to scope bridges prior to inspections to highlight deficient areas. In this regard, inspections can then be streamlined to focus time and efforts based on risk.”

So, knowing the benefits, how exactly does this technology help?

Effectively, Intel’s drones were able to digitally document an inspection of the iconic bridge and will also be able to work through difficult conditions, such as stormy weather or high winds, that would ordinarily hinder the process for humans. “With the digital model processed and the thousands of high resolution images stored within the Intel Insight Platform,” Ng explained, “MnDOT as well as [Collins Engineers] are now able to establish a baseline and compare data sets for years to come to monitor the health of the bridge over time.”

“The Stone Arch Bridge is a large bridge with a great deal of surface area,” Wells added. “Being a masonry bridge, it can be time consuming to notate all of the missing mortar and cracks that require repair. Utilizing the drone allows us to cover a large area in a short amount of time and better document the condition of the bridge to plan for repairs.”

Using the Intel Falcon 8+ drone and 36-megapixel Sony A7R payload, Intel, Collins Engineers and MnDOT survey the bridge. Intel Corporation.

While the partnership has just recently been established, the use of drones in bridge inspections is not completely new to MnDOT. “We have been using drones in bridge inspections in Minnesota since 2015,” Wells explained. However, previous instances have been primarily focused on research. Collaboration with Intel has given MnDOT and Collins the opportunity to bring these ideas to the next level. Wells hopes the partnership will allow the state to use drones for more and more bridge inspections and even expand their use into other realms of transportation. “Working with Intel is an indication that advances in data storage, data processing, and analytics are changing the way transportation assets are managed much in the same way as other industries are being transformed by big data,” she said.

In the meantime, the Stone Arch Bridge will continue to stand as a testament to the advancements in engineering and technology throughout history and into the future.

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