The current method of inspecting bridges for structural damage is labor-intensive and, in some instances, dangerous to all involved. Dr. Zhaozheng Yin, assistant professor of computer science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and his engineering team have been developing a safer, more efficient solution with his latest research project, the “multicopter.”
“This system was developed initially to monitor bridge structure health,” Yin says. “Our goal is to be able to collect data autonomously using non-invasive sensor technology; to be able to detect and find patterns that could possibly tell us that information about the structure’s integrity.”
The “multicopter” gets its name from its appearance. The radio-controlled mini-helicopter has multiple propellers to lift it into the sky and is loaded with an assortment of cameras, sensors and other technology that help it to maneuver and hover. Yin’s group has created several versions of the machine, including a hexocopter (six propellers) and a quadcopter (four propellers).
While the flying machine may not be groundbreaking, it is incredibly practical.
“Imagine you need to perform a check-up on a bridge that is over an extremely fast-flowing river, or even spans a section of the ocean,” says Yin. “The standard procedures are extremely labor-intensive and time-consuming. With a multicopter, you have a feasible solution to a dangerous problem.”
Yin’s research is funded by Lockheed Martin and sponsored by the Mid-America Transportation Center, a consortium of Midwestern universities based in Lincoln, Neb; Missouri S&T is a member of the group. The finishing touches of this project are set to be completed by December 2013.
Yin says that the project has been fun and challenging. One problem Yin and his research team faced early on had to do with outfitting the multicopter with the necessary equipment while keeping it light enough to maneuver proficiently. He hopes to be able to continue his work after the prototype has been completed in the winter.
Chris Seto, a sophomore in computer engineering from Chesterfield, Mo., works with Yin and says “The multicopter makes an excellent platform for airborne sensors because it is extremely easy to interface with the flight control avionics, which allows the aircraft to be flown automatically and also allows the onboard sensors to collect the data required during these tests.”
“These aircraft can be very precisely flown, so even in sensitive environments, such as those with many obstacles, the aircraft can still be successfully maneuvered,” Seto adds.
“In the future, besides its initial intentions for bridge structure monitoring, this technology could be incorporated into military or corporate use,” Yin says. “Similar to drone uses, auto-detection and tracking is going to be important. Or even something like farming. If you have 60 acres of corn, you can monitor which areas need attention or irrigation, or find where the cows are on a very large farm.”
Together with his students, Seto, and Yunxiang Mao, a computer science Ph.D. candidate, Yin will continue to improve and refine the project.