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"Octocopter" Tackles Bridge Structural Monitoring

by Aaron Mack

This prototype "quadcopter" has since been retrofitted to be more powerful and carry more weight.

Monitoring bridge structures is a potentially tough problem to tackle. But as the number of road users grows and the infrastructure continues to advance in age, it is also an increasingly pertinent problem. Tragedies like the Minnesota bridge collapse of 2007 can occur unexpectedly, and have devastating consequences in terms of loss of life and economic impacts—not to mention bringing the surrounding transportation network to a virtual standstill.

But in many cases, giving a bridge a regular “check-up” is no simple task. For example, what if said bridge spans across a 1,000 ft chasm?  Or a rushing river?

Meet Dr. Zhaozheng Yin of Missouri S&T’s computer science department.

With MATC sponsorship, Yin and his team have developed a system for bridge structural analysis that is as forthright as it is advanced, as simple as it is ingenious—and ultimately plain fun to behold. This system is the “Octocopter.”

The Octocopter is a radio-controlled, miniaturized helicopter that uses eight rotors. Akin to its full-sized predecessor, the Octocopter is incredibly maneuverable and has the ability to hover, making it ideal for reaching otherwise challenging locations around bridge structures, such as the underside, that normally make bridge monitoring a trying endeavor.

To collect integral data, the Octocopter is equipped with specialized cameras and sensor technologies, eliminating the need for up-close human inspection or stationary sensors.

“The copter allows the user to collect data from locations that would otherwise be impossible,” Yin said. “Traditional monitoring can also be costly. Normally you might need to block traffic in order to monitor a bridge. The maintenance cost of stationary sensors can also be high; sensors are often built right into the concrete of a bridge structure, so sensor maintenance can cause bridge structural damage. The Octocopter has the potential to eliminate all of these difficulties.”

The project, funded by Lockheed Martin, has currently completed its first two phases. Phase 1 involved purchasing and assembling the parts—piece-by-piece—for a prototype “quadcopter,” a four-rotored version of its successor. Phase 2 involved improving upon the original design.

“We finished the prototype, but then wanted to add more sensor technologies,” Yin said. “…but the extra weight was too much for the original prototype, so we decided to develop a more powerful one.”

Following the completion of the more powerful Octocopter, Yin and his team are on a mission to equip it with even more sensors, as well as self-automating technology.

“We want the researcher to be able to deploy the copter from long distances.” Yin said. “Or, say the copter is in operation and is blown off course by storm or a large gust of wind; we want it to be able to return on its own to the bridge it was monitoring.”

The improved copter will also be equipped with GPS-based guidance and obstacle avoidance technology to keep it safe while in flight.

Yin’s flight-based system is a breakthrough that could save countless time and monetary resources, all while enhancing safety for both engineering practitioners and the general public, for many types of bridge structural monitoring. The final prototype is proposed to be completed and put to use by December 2013.