Florida Tech

Bridging the Safety Gap

At Florida Tech, researchers have the advantage of bird’s-eye views while working with the florida department of transportation on critical inspections.

In the American Civil War, when both sides loaded balloons with explosives, set them aloft and hoped for the best—or worst— unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the U.S. first took flight. Today, UAVs are not just weapons, but are found in logistics operations, the civil and commercial sectors, and research and development.

At Florida Tech, L. Daniel Otero, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Systems, understands their potential. He’s working with UAVs to help the Florida Department of Transportation develop more efficient methods to inspect bridges and high mast luminaires, or lights (HML).

Every two years, FDOT inspects approximately 7,000 bridges and 4,300 HMLs. While bridge inspections are typi- cally time-consuming and often involve costly traffic delays, the FDOT relies on inspectors to make important decisions that have significant economic and public safety implications.

As the principal investigator (PI) of a $250,000-plus, 24-month research study funded by the FDOT Research Center, Otero leads the effort to develop and implement a UAV system to provide real- time remote access to bridge and HML inspection data and evaluate the system’s capabilities through experimentation.
 He and Co-PI Professor Paul Cosentino expect the system to be cost-effective, and improve safety and accuracy.

Dennis Dalli, an engineering systems master’s degree student at Florida Tech, and Boluwin Ola, an undergraduate in aviation.
Dennis Dalli, an engineering systems master’s degree student at Florida Tech, and Boluwin Ola, an undergraduate in aviation.

“The research team will design experi- ments and analyze data to investigate the system’s capabilities to detect structural defects such as corrosion and concrete cracking,” says Otero. “Field and wind tunnel test data will be analyzed to identify maximum wind speeds and light condi- tions for proper system operation.”

Otero’s main research area is transportation systems engineering with a focus on structural inspections. He is director of the Transportation Systems Engineering Research laboratory at Florida Tech, developing proposals that involve underwater and surface structural inspections of railroad bridges using various sensors. His research remains consistent with his department’s research goals in systems engineering.

“In the past few years, our department has developed a unique identity for inter- disciplinary research applications that involve the use of UAVs,” notes Otero, who earned his doctorate in industrial and management systems engineering at the University of South Florida in 2009, the same year he joined Florida Tech as a faculty member.

A native of Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Otero knew early on that he would pursue a career path in engineering. He remembers taking a physics class in high school about forces that influence structures. He was sold: “It got me thinking about how amazing it was that engineers could design long span bridges over water. That day I wanted to major in engineering.”

The arc of his career has now brought him to his beloved bridges, where his research is helping create economic dollars and save lives.