The Illinois Department of Transportation thinks that two new, 7 1/2-pound, 2 1/2-foot-wide devices will help the agency rise to new heights of safety and cost efficiency.

“We’re excited to have drones available to help us with the work we do at the Illinois Department of Transportation,” said IDOT Secretary Randy Blankenhorn. “Because drones can access places that are difficult and dangerous for people to get to, we expect this technology to enhance employee safety as well as reduce costs.

“We also believe drone technology will be able to support other agencies, whether it’s during natural disasters or helping first-responders determine the appropriate response to emergency situations.”

The drones and their supporting technology, purchased for $8,800 from IDOT’s operating budget, are now being tested to see how they may work for a variety of tasks, including bridge inspections, mapping, surveying, work zone progress, emergency response and other applications, according to IDOT spokeswoman Kelsea Gurski.

“Drones can cut down on the number of people we need for survey teams and they can get really good angles on bridges and other areas that are hard to get to by an individual,” Gurski said. “It will help keep workers out of high-risk locations because of the high speed of nearby traffic or other dangerous conditions in the area.”

“The drones can shoot video and take 16-megapixel photos with a three-axis stabilized camera system,” Gurski said. “They also have the ability to enable live streaming, which might be useful in emergency and disaster situations.”

The drones are being tested by IDOT’s Division of Aeronautics. Once in use, they will be operated by Federal Aviation Administration-certified pilots in the division, Gurski said. The agency has a special FAA certification that is required to operate the drones in the manner it envisions, and the devices could be in use on IDOT job sites as early as this spring.

The first official use for the IDOT drones came when there was a request for aerial photos to document a minor issue on a recent paving and striping job in Springfield, she said.

Faster, safer

Drone technology is already being used by private industry in the manner intended by IDOT.

Hanson Inc., a nationwide engineering company headquartered in Springfield, has been using what the FAA calls Unmanned Aerial Systems as a key part of its work.

“We use drones for a variety of different jobs. We can collect data faster and safer and collect a whole lot more types of data using a drone than we can by using traditional surveying methods,” said Hanson marketing and communications manager Darrel Berry. “For instance, on bridge inspections, you can send a drone up under a bridge deck and look it over and inspect it a lot safer than sending somebody up in a crane or over the side of the bridge.

“While we are flying a drone, we can capture three-dimensional terrain, see three-dimensional objects in space, and these are all real-world measurements.”

Hanson’s drone operators are also FAA-certified pilots, Berry said, and the company has federal approval to fly the craft in the manner they need to get the job done.

It’s important that all drone operators adhere to the federal rules governing them, according to FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. Pilots must be at least 16 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test, and be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration, with a refresher course available to people who already hold a pilot’s license. Operators must keep the drone in sight, fly during the day and keep it under 400 feet and 100 miles per hour. They must also yield the right of way to manned aircraft and must not fly over people or from a moving vehicle, she said.

Duquette said that law enforcement agencies and governmental units like IDOT can apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization that permits them to self-certify their drone pilots and to seek special operational guidelines in certain circumstances.

Pilots preferred

Flying a drone may seem simple to the thousands of people who unwrapped them under Christmas trees this weekend, but doing it commercially or for public tasks requires special skills.

Abby Speicher of Dart Drones, a nationwide drone flight instruction company based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, with two instructors in Chicago, said it helps if you already have aircraft pilot training before you fly a drone.

“With the new commercial drone regulations that are out, you either have to be a current pilot or you have to learn and understand things like airspace and micro-meteorology, where and when you can fly, and what to do if you have a problem,” Speicher said. “Current pilots are not starting from scratch, they just need a quick refresher course from the FAA. For new pilots, it can take up to 25 hours to study for and pass the exam.

“A lot of new drone pilots, it doesn’t really click for them that these are considered aircraft by the FAA because they can only fly at certain levels. You have to be incredibly careful because you don’t want to hurt anyone. Pilots just automatically get that.”

With that in mind, Speicher said flying a drone is easier that flying a regular aircraft.

“I would say it’s much easier because drones self-hover. They will just sit in the air and wait for you to give them a command,” Speicher said. “Whereas a helicopter, if you’re not doing something, it will fall from the sky.”

But flying a drone also has its own unique challenges.

“There’s always more of a chance for crashing if you are flying near an object,” Speicher said. “There can be different wind tunnels near bridges, but luckily there is no one in the aircraft if there is an issue.”

The Illinois General Assembly weighed in on the drone issue in 2015 with legislation forming the Illinois Unmanned Aerial System Oversight Task Force, which issued its mandated report to Gov. Bruce Rauner on June 30, 2016. The report acknowledged that drones “have the potential to provide public agencies with valuable and useful information,” but cautioned that “incidentally collected data not germane to the official purpose of the mission should not be retained or utilized for purposes beyond the scope of the mission unless otherwise required by law.”