New Mexico State selected for UAS dam inspection

By Emily Aasand | July 02, 2015

The Bureau of Reclamation has selected New Mexico State University to perform the first Reclamation dam inspection using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). New Mexico’s team will perform research at Elephant Butte Dam in New Mexico, a project estimated at $35,000 that the Bureau will fund.

The New Mexico team will work with Reclamation staff to develop the concept of operations, address safety requirements, select the UAS and appropriate sensors, validate flight procedures and perform the inspection. The flight is expected to take place in the next couple of months.

The research project will determine the applicability of UAS as a tool for infrastructure inspection using light detection and ranging infrared, photogrammetry and HD video, according to Matthew Klein, civil engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation. The inspection will help Reclamation determine potential issues with the dams’ infrastructure including concrete cracks, spalls and other subsurface defects including moisture and any erosion or other topographical changes to the dam and spillway.

“The partnership started with an internal research program within Reclamation where some of our field’s personnel submitted a proposal to do an aerial survey of Elephant Butte Dam,” said Klein. “I was contacted to provide technical expertise on the data that would be collected. I’ve worked in photogrammetry and 3D condition assessments and so we’ve known that this would be a good tool to provide that for us.”

Klein says if this flight is successful, it could serve as prominent technology within Reclamation for inspections. “The goal is that we hope all of our structures would be subject to the same type of inspection procedure [via UAV] to supplement our current inspection techniques.”

“This aeronautical research project enables NMSU to develop safety of flight procedures for small UAS on a dam structure which will lead to refinement of the procedures for other larger and more difficult dams to inspect,” said Dennis Zaklan, UAS FTC deputy director. “It will hopefully save lives of Reclamation dam inspectors as they will not be exposed to some of the dangers of hanging over dams taking pictures to look for cracks and other issues.”

Zaklan hopes these flights will lead to additional research for the MNSU engineering collages for the research and development of better sensors, building, inspecting and repairing of the nation’s critical water infrastructure.

“For the NMSU UAS FTC, it provides us with an opportunity to further the integration of UAS into the NAS working with the FAA; and also enables us to provide support to more state and federal agencies beginning their journey into using UAS as a big tool to accomplish their missions more technically efficient and effective for less.”

“I think this UAV technology, combined with computing advances, can become a powerful tool for inspection,” said Klein. “I think it’s an amazing technology and we’re looking forward to helping advance that.”

New Mexico State University has been home to a UAS Flight Test Center since 2007. The partnership between the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and New Mexico State University was formed to support the integration of unmanned systems into the National Airspace System. The UAS FTC operates under an FAA Certificate of Authorization that permits UAS flights in over 15,000 square miles of coordinated airspace in southwest New Mexico. Research and development has been performed in such areas as establishing standard UAS regulations, as well as providing new technology for homeland security, agriculture, defense, and science operations.


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