North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has become the first state transportation agency to have been awarded such a waiver, paving the way for other states to make full use of drones in inspections of bridges and other infrastructure.

The approval was granted as part of North Carolina’s participation in an FAA pilot programme that is focused on testing and enabling new innovative uses of drone technology.

“We are pleased to be leading the way with this fantastic new tool,” said North Carolina’s secretary of transportation Eric Boyette. “Safety is our top priority at NCDOT, and this new system will enable us to complete inspections while better protecting our inspectors and the integrity of our bridges.”

The waiver application was developed in part with US-based drone maker Skydio. Skydio drones are powered by on-board artificial intelligence designed to enable each craft to avoid obstacles in complex areas that lack a reliable GPS signal, such as the trusses beneath bridges.

NCDOT’s UAS program manager Ben Spain said drones have been used since 2016 to conduct bridge inspections. But by enabling the drones to move beyond the pilot’s line of sight, the inspections will be able to collect more high-resolution images in difficult-to-see places so inspectors can better analyse the bridge’s integrity and identify possible problems.

“Inspectors will collect images using the drone instead of a snooper truck or having to suspend the inspector from the bridge,” Spain added. “They’ll be able to do these inspections quickly with minimal impacts to the traveling public, like not having to close lanes of traffic for as long.”