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The North Carolina Department of Transportation is testing a new ‘tethered drone’ system in conjunction with the agency’s highway patrol service to improve safety on North Carolina roadways.

[Above image by NCDOT]

The agency’s incident management assistance patrol or IMAP and its Division of Aviation plan to test drones tethered to specific IMAP vehicles to help responders assess incidents, provide situational awareness to NCDOT’s Statewide Transportation Operations Center or STOC and Traffic Management Centers or TMCs, and assist with overall traffic management of the incidents.

Image via NCDOT

The drones can fly up to 150 feet to take video and livestream it to the STOC/regional TMC as well as to emergency management personnel at the incident, the agency said.

This instant information – provided by highly portable drones launched and recovered quickly – should offer a safer environment for those on scene or approaching an incident and allow the centers to better manage traffic and share more accurate traveler information to the public.

“Along our interstates, where our IMAP patrols operate, there are gaps in camera coverage, so we don’t have perfect situational awareness,” explained Dominic Ciaramitaro, an NCDOT STOC engineer in a statement. “Our tethered drones will help us fill those gaps.”

Traditionally, traffic operations staff views video feeds at the STOC/TMC through traffic cameras or they receive reports from responders in the field. By contrast, NCDOT said tethered drones should safely offer an option to provide more real-time information, with higher quality video, over longer stretches of time.

Photo by NCDOT

IMAP trucks are equipped with multiple specialized tools to assist stranded motorists or scene management with first responders and tethered drones should become just “one more resource” in their toolkit, the agency said.

The IMAP team is currently testing two tethered drone systems as part of this pilot program, funded in part by a federal innovation grant the NCDOT received in 2020.

NCDOT is one of several state departments of transportation at the forefront of drone development efforts spanning the country.

Photo by the NCDOT

In February 2021, the agency conducted its first bridge inspection using drones.

That inspection entailed operators monitoring live high-definition drone video feeds as inspected the bridge’s 10 largest columns, looking for any potential defects that would require further action.

A waiver granted to the agency in 2020 by the Federal Aviation Administration allows NCDOT to operate drones beyond visual line of sight when inspecting bridges – letting the operator fly the drone around pillars, between girders, and even inside columns.

Then, in July 2021, NCDOT completed two successful delivery drone flights from Hatteras to Ocracoke Island.

NCDOT’s Division of Aviation, in partnership with the NCDOT Ferry Division and U.S.-based drone logistics company Volansi, conducted the two eight-mile round trips that each averaged 18 minutes of drone flight time.

editor@aashto.org

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