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A new pilot program will allow the regional transit agency to check overhead power wires using an aerial drone.

COURTESY PHOTO: TRIMET - TriMet's new Mavic Air II quadcopter flies near power lines at the Ruby Junction MAX facility in Gresham.The workers tasked with keeping TriMet's MAX trains running smoothly are now getting a top-down perspective on the tri-county area's five-line, 60-mile-long light rail system.

After two years of planning, TriMet says a new Mavic Air II quadcopter drone will serve as the maintenance department's electronic eyes in the sky — offering "drone-enhanced" inspections of the overhead power wires that keep the region's rail infrastructure humming.

"We have to send a person into the trackway," said Matt Baccitich, maintenance of way coordinator with TriMet. "They're limited in looking in one direction only — that's up."

But not anymore.

Baccitich said the drone can provide line-of-sight or overhead shots of the lines. TriMet's drone will only capture pictures and video, though officials already are mulling the possibilities of using thermal or lidar scanning technologies; lidar is similar to radar — radio detection and ranging — but uses visible light, not radio waves.

TriMet found the $3,170 cost for the program within its existing budget, according to spokesman Tyler Graf, with the top cost being the $1,300 price tag of the drone itself.

"The 'soft costs' include flight training, license testing and drone registration fees, which came to $265," Graf said. "There may be additional costs in the months ahead if we need to purchase additional hardware."

The flying robot hasn't automated any human jobs out of existence, at least so far, as TriMet says its 13-person overhead wire inspection crew will simply use the drone to reduce time spent riding in elevated boom trucks or walking the tracks, which requires trains in the vicinity to slow down.

"When we go out into the right of way, we're looking for any type of degradation, any rust, possibly shiny spots where components are rubbing together," said Baccitich.

SCREENSHOT - Maintenance of Way Coordinator Matt Baccitich, left, watches as assistant manager of bus and rail operations Gregg Marshall pilots the agency's new drone. The drone will get its first public showings Tuesday, July 27, during an inspection of the Steel Bridge, followed by a look at Portland Streetcar's wires near Portland State University on July 29, and then the MAX overhead wires at the Southwest Morrison and Yamhill light rail stops on Friday, July 30, according to a news release.

Spokesman Graf said TriMet's drone operator, assistant manager of bus and rail operations Gregg Marshall, already was licensed under the Federal Aviation Administration's small Unmanned Aircraft System prior to launching the pilot program, which will end when the weather changes this fall.

The FAA currently limits commercial drone flights to 400 feet, but the regional transit agency does not expect to reach this ceiling as the highest point of its system is the Tilikum Crossing bridge, 200 feet above the Willamette River.

Zane Sparling
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