Representatives Greg Stanton and Garret Graves of Louisiana introduced a bipartisan bill to authorize $100 million in grants for state, local and tribal governments to use drone technology to visually inspect infrastructure and another $100 million to train employees to properly use the drones.
Using drones to conduct inspections in hard-to-reach places--such as underneath bridges--would save local governments significant money and speed up the inspection process. Many state departments of transportation, Tribes, and municipalities already use drones to enhance human inspections of critical infrastructure like bridges, roads, dams, and electric substations, identifying and rectifying issues at the earliest possible stage. The Arizona Department of Transportation has used drones to help its engineering staff inspect bridges and perform surveying work along state highways since 2018. Drones are also used to improve access and safety after natural disasters, like wildfires and hurricanes, and to determine the extent of damage.
"Drones are a common-sense tool to inspect some of the toughest to reach parts of our infrastructure," said Stanton. "It's safer, speedier and more sustainable. These grants will go a long way to help state, local and tribal governments invest in this cutting-edge technology and better care for aging infrastructure."
H.R. 5315, the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant Act would:
Authorize $100 million in grants through the Department of Transportation to state, tribal and municipal agencies to purchase, contract for services, or develop program management capability for small-unmanned aircraft systems made by U.S. companies to perform critical infrastructure inspection, maintenance, rehabilitation, or construction projects. The federal share would be limited to 80 percent of the project cost in most instances.
Authorize $100 million in grants for workforce training and education at institutions of higher education (including community colleges) authorized by Sections 631and 632 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (49 USC 40101 note), positioning current and future workers to capitalize on the fast-growing drone economy, and helping to cultivate a diverse workforce. To date, 41 institutions have been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration as UAS-Collegiate Training Initiative Schools, including Yavapai College in Prescott, AZ.
"The National League of Cities applauds the bipartisan leadership of Rep. Stanton (AZ) and Rep. Graves (LA) as they introduce the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant Act," said Clarence E. Anthony, CEO and Executive Director of the National League of Cities. "Cities and towns have embraced drones as a new technology tool for tough tasks like inspecting over the railing of bridges and are eager to train and prepare a new workforce that is ready with the skills to serve their communities."
"Drone technology has the potential to save lives and help preserve essential infrastructure. This bill would provide much needed funding for drone infrastructure inspection equipment and education and training at the state and local levels. This will not only help states aviation agencies acquire drone technology to safely inspect critical infrastructure, but also bolster the workforce needed to manage it, and improve public safety. State aviation leaders appreciate the leadership of Representatives Greg Stanton and Garret Graves in introducing this legislation," said Greg Pecoraro, President and CEO of the National Association of State Aviation Officials.
"Commercial drones have amazing safety, efficiency and environmental benefits. By expanding the use of drones to inspect America's aging and decaying infrastructure, and by positioning current and future workers to capitalize on the fast-growing drone economy, the DIIG Act promotes worker safety, protects the environment, and increases efficiencies. The Commercial Drone Alliance appreciates the leadership of Rep. Stanton and Rep. Graves in introducing the DIIG Act to enable the American public to realize the many benefits of commercial drones," said Lisa Ellman, Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance.
"This bill seeks to provide state and local governments with infrastructure inspection equipment and with resources to prepare and train our workforce. Investing in new technologies is a critical step in continuing to strengthen our economy and grow our workforce." Jim Tymon, Executive Director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
"This bill promises federal support for tribal governments like the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma as we address safety inspection concerns with the thousands of miles of utility infrastructure that crisscross include our 11,000 square mile Reservation in southeastern Oklahoma," said Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton. "The Choctaw Nation is a leader in testing and adopting emerging aviation technologies, including small drones, and like other governments we are actively deploying drone technologies that serve our diverse regulatory responsibilities. The Choctaw Nation is grateful to Congressmen Stanton and Graves for advocating for this much-needed grant program that we hope will help us expand our drone operations, and we urge Congress to quickly enact and fund the Drone Infrastructure Inspection Grant Act of 2021."
The infrastructure crisis is also an inspection crisis. Nearly half of America's bridges are more than 50 years old, and other infrastructure is aging quickly. American workers must have safe, effective, and climate-friendly methods to inspect aging and decaying infrastructure. But traditional inspection methods--dependent on heavy machinery--are often dangerous, time consuming, expensive, and bad for the environment. That is part of the reason why an inspection and maintenance backlog persists.
Benefits of using drones includes
Improved worker safety: Drones significantly reduce risks for workers. According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, "drones can perform hazardous inspections and maintenance scans, much more quickly and with greater ease, lessening the perils on the American worker."
Reduced carbon emissions: Small drones are electric and offer extraordinary climate benefits. The snooper trucks used to inspect bridges, for example, often get less than 5 miles per gallon. Using drones to supplement the inspection of only a small subset of America's bridges would be equivalent to removing thousands of cars from the road.
Greater efficiencies and reduced costs: Drones augment human inspectors, saving time and allowing them to create digital twins to track changes and damage over time. One state DOT expects to save almost $1.7 million over four years by using drones to help workers inspect bridges. Drones represent a 2x cost savings over traditional methods.