September 21, 2020
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The California Department of Transportation plans to work with the University of California’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Safety on a yearlong effort to standardize practices, training, and safety protocols guiding its growing use of drones.

[Above photo by Caltrans.]

“We’re going to help update their drone manual by integrating the latest industry and professional standards, and where we find those deficient, we’ll do some experimental research to support new standards,” explained Brandon Stark, Ph.D., the center’s director, in a statement.

“We’ll also help with the training program by developing curriculum for teaching flight skills and remote learning curriculum that will enable Caltrans to scale up their operations statewide more effectively,” he added.

Photo by Caltrans

Lori Lee, Caltrans’ UAS program administrator – who tracks every drone flight Caltrans conducts – said this project is important as her agency uses drones [also known as unmanned aerial systems or UAS] for a wide variety of tasks: environmental reviews, land surveys, bridge inspections, wildlife crossing monitoring, and road construction oversight.

“We need to be able to get accurate data, but a lot of the field work could put people in harm’s way,” she said. “People can sometimes be put in very treacherous situations. [So] we need a systematic, comprehensive safety-management system.”

Photo by Caltrans

This is the first time the center officially worked with a state agency, but Stark said much of the work for this project is “scalable” to other agencies using drones.

“The UC [University of California] has more than 600 drones registered internally, and we have research teams working all over the state,” he pointed out. “What we’ve learned from that experience is that once you have 40 or 50 drone teams working all over, we need to look closer at ensuring consistency in what standards we follow, what type of training is needed and how we use drones.”

“The beauty of having this technology is that there are so many field applications,” added Tarek Tabshouri, unmanned aerial systems manager for Caltrans. “I would like to see any of our programs that can benefit from UAS have access to them, along with well-trained pilots. It will be a lot of work, but I am confident we can do it.”

editor@aashto.org

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