The role for drones in Biden’s infrastructure plan

A fascinating take on an overlooked step in any infrastructure overhaul: Inspecting millions of miles of crumbling concrete.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

President Biden's sweeping infrastructure plan looks to tackle America's roadways, expand broadband access, improve electric grids, and invest millions into manufacturing. That all sounds great, but it's not quite so simple.

To boot, we also need to consider how these areas will be inspected in order to allocate resources and then to maintain this investment. There is currently no way that existing crews can inspect all this infrastructure effectively, and if we cannot inspect the infrastructure reliably, we cannot reasonably expect to spend repair dollars. 

Enter drones. To truly modernize and future proof America's infrastructure, it's a safe bet that drones should play a key role enabling quick inspections and spotting developing issues prior to them debilitating an electric grid or roadway. Goldman Sachs forecasts the total drone market size to be worth $100 billion— driven by the need for better data collection in commercial industries like agriculture, mining, energy, and infrastructure. The once nascent industry is on the precipice of breaking into the mainstream and the Biden infrastructure plan could be the tipping point.

New autonomous drones will help to complete more missions per year than ever before, keeping these infrastructure investments in working condition. But there are hurdles to this vision, and it's incredibly important to get it right as major budget allocations are being discussed.

I recently had a chance to connect with Vijay Somandepalli, CTO and Co-Founder of American Robotics, the first and so far only autonomous drone manufacturer to win FAA approval for pilot-free drone flight, about how commercial drones can help reshape America's infrastructure. He offers a fascinating look at how critical drones could become to any infrastructure overhaul and to the future prosperity American commerce.

GN: It seems like inspection is the big overlooked question mark when talking about an infrastructure overhaul. Just how big is the inspection challenge when it comes to Biden's proposed plan?

Vijay Somandepalli: The infrastructure in the US needs a concerted effort to bring it into the 21st century. Most of our infrastructure, be it the transportation infrastructure that are our lifelines, or the electric and data grid that connects everyone and everything, is aging, and falling behind from a security and integrity perspective. 

This infrastructure ages and deteriorates quite differently across different parts of the country for reasons related to local climate, usage, demographics, as well as local regulatory pressures and appetites. For example, the road infrastructure in the Northeast US is affected heavily by snow and snow removal-related activities compared to vast areas of the west and southwest, where the deterioration might be driven by higher temperatures and winds. Similarly, railyards and other rail infrastructure in the northern states face different challenges compared to those in the southern parts of the US.

Accurately knowing and tracking the state of the infrastructure via well-planned and frequent inspection activities will be critical in identifying the areas that need immediate attention, as well those areas that have a multiplying effect across the rest of the system. The need for good inspection practices and technologies goes beyond just trying to find and fix existing issues. A timely inspection regime would allow companies to track changes and deteriorations, and take preventative measures to actually prevent problems from occurring, and vastly extend the life of our existing and new infrastructure.

The sheer amount of infrastructure that we have, and the geographical spread of it combined with the widely varying environments they are located in means that regular inspections of our infrastructure is going to be critical to ensure that all efforts to repair, fix and expand our infrastructure succeed. I believe there is a lot of new and effective technology, including robotics and AI, that innovative US companies can bring to bear on these challenging problems that would make this an economically viable and sustainable win for the entire country.

GN: How is the development of detect-and-avoid technology, smarter autonomy, and edge computing enabling drones to work better and provide greater value to commercial users? 

Vijay Somandepalli: The commercial drone industry is growing quickly and providing significant benefits to the American public. Detect-and-avoid technology, smarter autonomy, and edge computing is key to enabling expanded operations beyond visual line of sight which is critical for the industry to truly take off. The economics behind paying for a visual observer or pilot on the ground to monitor a drone flight today simply don't make sense and have significantly hampered enterprises' and commercial users' ability to justify building out a drone program.

It's important to remember that for the vast majority of commercial use cases flying a drone once or twice a year has little to no value. Typically, to see the benefits of drone-based data collection, flights need to be conducted multiple times per day every day, indefinitely - to cover enough area, survey at a proper resolution, and detect problems when they occur, and potentially before they occur. Today, the average hourly rate of hiring a drone pilot in the U.S. is about $150, and can get as high as $500 / hour. Thus, overcoming the human costs associated with commercial drone use has been one of the biggest hindrances to the market and has impacted the viability and implementation of this technology on a mass scale.

Combining Detect-And-Avoid (DAA) technology with smarter autonomy allows for fully autonomous operations (with no pilots or visual observers) to be realized in a safe and scalable manner. The use of edge computing reduces the costs and latencies associated with the delivery of the information collected by the drones to the end customers. Edge computing also enables advanced AI-based algorithms to be trained and used for specific end customer uses with the right context (from the edge) incorporated into the data and the information.

For the past five years, American Robotics has been developing a suite of proprietary technologies designed specifically to produce the industry-leading solution for safe automated drone flights that is economical and scalable.  The Scout System™ incorporates multiple novel risk mitigations including proprietary DAA sensors and algorithms, advanced automated system diagnostics and failsafes, automated pre-flight checks, and automated flight path management. If anything were to deviate from the expected, safe operation plan, our drone systems take immediate action to correct, such as altering its flight course and returning to the base station.
GN: Is the regulatory environment currently conducive to using drones for inspection on infrastructure projects? Is there room for improvement/evolution in your mind?

Vijay Somandepalli: The regulatory environment for the use of drones for inspection purposes has improved since 2015 when commercial use of drones was allowed for the first time in the US. Widespread use of drones for inspection requires they be operated within the line of sight of a pilot, which constrains them to fly only a short distance from the pilot. The regulators (FAA) have granted a few extended line of sight operation approvals which extend this operational range of drones but at the cost of adding more human capital to keep an eye on the drones and for other air traffic. The approvals have also been very infrequently granted. 

In January, American Robotics became the first company to be allowed to operate drones without any humans required for the operations in the field i.e fully remote and automated. This is a major step in the evolution of drone regulations in the US, and sets the precedent for more of such advanced and complex operations to be permitted as long as the safety and operational requirements posed by the FAA are met. As we at American Robotics conduct more operations with time, we continue to work with the regulators to push the boundaries of drone technology and regulations in a safe and reliable manner. We expect to share the learnings from our work with the FAA with the rest of the industry, and spearhead the evolution of drone regulations in the US and worldwide to allow for more automated and scalable drone-based inspections and data collection.  

GN: How readily has the commercial consumer adopted drone technology for inspection purposes? What sectors seem more ripe and which have yet to widely adopt drones for inspection.

Vijay Somandepalli: In the commercial sector, we are still just scratching the surface of what's possible and how this technology will be integrated and scaled. Until humans are no longer required to be part of on-the-ground operations, it's difficult to make the case for drones in most scenarios. Imagine if every time a logistics robot moved across the warehouse floor, a human had to follow it around keeping their hands on a controller and their eyes fixed on the robot. 

American Robotics' groundbreaking and exciting FAA approval is an important and significant step forward for the commercial drone community as a whole. The commercial drone industry looks forward to building on American Robotics' success and continuing to work with the FAA toward safe integration of UAS into our National Airspace System.

We are working closely with our partners in the energy, agriculture, and oil & gas sectors to scale their use of drone-based data collection, and asset management functions, and have shown significant process improvements are possible leading to very real positive outcomes for these partners. This has been made possible because of the technology and regulatory breakthroughs that we have made in the use of drones in the industrial and commercial space.

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