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Swarms of drones will soon keep tabs on our aging city infrastructure

When it comes to the future commercial applications of drones, it seems that inspecting the world’s aging infrastructure may be one task where UAVs can corner the market. The latest demonstration of this? A project from researchers from Sweden’s Lulea University of Technology who have been testing how teams of autonomous drones can be used to keep tabs on wind turbines: potentially alerting authorities of any impending problems.

“Collaborative aerial robots for inspection can be utilized in all the aspects of the aging infrastructure,” George Nikolakopoulos, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told Digital Trends. “Characteristic examples could be wind turbines, dams, industrial installations, chimneys, buildings, [and more]. All of these inspection operations can be performed faster and safer by the provided innovation when compared to the nowadays solutions.”

Using drones for the task could also help lower the risk to human inspectors, who may be risking injury (or worse) by having to travel to the top of one of these tall structures in order to perform their job. The technology developed by the Lulea University researchers involves a modular system — combining localization, path planning, and mapping technology so that the drones can carry out their task. This is harder than it might sound, since having multiple drones flying around collecting images in a small space, while simultaneously avoiding crashing into one another, requires both advance planning (for the path mapping bit) and the ability to react on the fly. Once the drones land after their mission, the information they have gathered is then converted into a 3D reconstruction of the infrastructure in question. It can then be examined by investigators without them having to risk life and limb in the process.

This isn’t the only example of drones being used to inspect infrastructure that we’ve covered. Intel recently signed a deal with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to use its drones to inspect bridges for faults.

“We are currently working on improving the robustness of the technology to be directly applicable in multiple use cases, while we are also close to [finalizing] the creation of our spinoff in the field of autonomous aerial inspection,” Nikolakopoulos said.

A paper describing the work, titled “Autonomous visual inspection of large-scale infrastructures using aerial robots,” is available to read online.

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