• Policy-makers confronting crumbling infrastructure and a warming climate face a double bind: many potential remedies to one crisis negatively impact the other.
  • From initial construction to periodic inspection, infrastructure demands carbon-intensive work throughout its life cycle.
  • Electric drones help resolve this dilemma by enabling greener and more cost-effective infrastructure inspection without cumbersome, gas-guzzling machinery.
  • Case studies from across the globe are proving drones’ potential to sustainably enhance infrastructure resilience.

Around the world, vital infrastructure is falling apart. Industrial countries like Italy, Brazil and the United States have suffered headline-grabbing bridge collapses and ruptured dams recently.

These often-deadly events have inspired the political will to rebuild. US President Joe Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure proposal is moving through Congress. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has called for ¥15 trillion ($137 billion) to improve emergency infrastructure. United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous New Deal to promote his own infrastructure campaign.

But policy-makers must balance infrastructure against another crisis: climate change. Infrastructure carries larger stakes for climate debates than one might first expect. According to the World Bank, approximately 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from infrastructure construction and the processes that sustain it. With such high stakes comes increased public scrutiny of these plans to build (and rebuild) sustainably. For instance, despite Johnson’s pledge that his plan would “build back greener”, UK environmentalists admonished the prime minister for insufficiently addressing emissions concerns.

As infrastructure upkeep and the climate crisis alike become more urgent, policy-makers find themselves trapped between the two. Many attempts to address one plight would worsen the other. Complicating matters, some “green” solutions cost more than the problem they purport to resolve. This double bind demands new solutions.

Drone advantages

One new emerging technology, drones, addresses both of these dilemmas at once. Drones enable greener, cost-effective inspections of ageing and decaying infrastructure. By using drones, we can cut the carbon footprint of traditional inspection methods, and complete more inspections in less time. Together, these benefits bring us closer to the sustainable infrastructure future we need.

I lead policy for Skydio, the largest US drone manufacturer and a world leader in autonomous flight. Like other drone companies, we see the value of this technology demonstrated daily.

Electric, battery-powered drones operate without fossil fuels. Compare this to the unwieldy, gas-guzzling machinery currently used to lift inspectors to precarious places around structures. For example, under-bridge inspection vehicles, semi-trucks with giant cranes used for bridge inspection, typically get 2 kilometres per litre or less. Enabling drones to inspect only half of the bridges in the US, UK, Australia and Japan – just a fraction of the world’s inspection agenda – would be the carbon equivalent of removing tens of thousands of vehicles from the roads each year.

By making inspections quicker and cheaper, drones enable more proactive examinations that reduce the need for carbon-intensive inspections. Using drones, bridge inspectors can complete in minutes tasks that would otherwise take hours. That’s because drones can easily and rapidly inspect a host of hard-to-reach spaces, all the while offering a granular detail that discovers flaws at hundredths of an inch. In more traditional setups, cumbersome equipment like snooper trucks or repels require far more time to set up safely to inspect a portion of a bridge, then require repeating that lengthy process throughout the structure.

A new generation of autonomous drones empowers bridge inspectors with even minimal training to fly inside bridge trusses and around support structures without fear of crashing. Drones supplement, not supplant, trained bridge inspectors, letting them inspect hard-to-reach areas with precision and create digital twins to track changes over time – something that has long been the holy grail of inspection.

By completing more inspections in less time (for less money), drones enable more inspections to happen, increasing the likelihood of spotting problems before they emerge. The earlier an issue is identified, the easier it is to remedy and before far larger (and far more carbon-intensive) fixes like reconstructing whole sections of structures are required.

Drones in the field

Case studies from across the globe are proving drones’ potential to sustainably enhance infrastructure resilience.

Drone-driven inspections in Japan have already demonstrated the scalability of this new, cleaner solution. Estimates suggested that rehabilitating Japan’s decaying national infrastructure with over 175,000 bridges and an insufficient national supply of engineers would cost $5 trillion. But by employing drones Japan Infrastructure Waymark (JIW) is far better able to tackle this immense undertaking. In just one year, the technology helped JIW decrease the cost-per-bridge inspection by 75% and grow inspection volume 7,000%. For JIW, drone inspection isn’t just cleaner; it also allows the company to address more infrastructure shortcomings in a smaller amount of time at a lower cost. A move that protects future generations by positively impacting climate change also helps today’s citizens connect faster and saves taxpayer dollars.

In the US, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is a leader in using drones to inspect the state’s 13,500 bridges. In 2020, NCDOT obtained a breakthrough, statewide approval from the Federal Aviation Authority to fly Skydio drones ‘beyond-line-of-sight’ while inspecting bridges. Under the waiver, inspectors can fly beyond their line-of-sight without using secondary observers or expensive radar systems, unlike the vast majority of drone approvals around the world. The waiver democratises drones for bridge inspection, making drones a high-value, low-friction tool that can be used without expensive training.

What is the World Economic Forum doing on drones

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), are beginning to transform the way goods, people, and data move around the world. Drones are most often characterized as an aircraft that has no on-board pilot, is capable of being controlled remotely or by a flight plan created by a human or in some unique cases autonomously, by leveraging GPS and onboard sensors.

From supply-chain and logistics to energy generation and distribution, nearly every major sector of the economy has the potential to leverage drone technologies. Drone technology is neither uniform nor stagnant as it moves from early adoption to widespread inclusion across sectors.

As new airframes, battery technologies, and communication tools rapidly create safer and more secure performance, the drones themselves change shape, form, and function differently. For commercial applications, drones start as small as three grams or over 340 kilograms or they can be one centimetre in diameter or measure over 5.5 metres.

The greatest threats to realizing the benefits that autonomous aviation can provide stem from inadequate regulatory support, a lack of societal acceptance or trust, and limited implementations that drive adoption for meaningful results. The World Economic Forum is leading efforts to solve overcome and solve these challenges with projects like the New Paradigms for Drone Regulations and the Urban Aerial mobility Challenge.

Read more about the work the World Economic Forum Drones and Tomorrow’s Airspace Team is doing to promote pilot projects and develop regulations that will support and enable the next generation of autonomous technologies in the sky.

Of course, cleaner inspection won’t solve the green infrastructure problem alone. Low-carbon infrastructure systems like mass transit, renewable energy projects and greener construction methods are also critical enablers. But drones are an essential part of the solution. Drones are a bridge to the future – tools that keep our infrastructure humming without damaging the environment on which we all depend.