When it first sought to boost business and improve the quality of its service, bridge inspection specialist Japan Infrastructure Waymark (JIW) turned to drones – yet was quickly disappointed with the performance delivered. Rather than dump the entire technology, however, JIW pivoted to automated, AI-enhanced Skydio craft and watched its activity blast off.

Manually operated drones disappoint

When it realized inspections using the drones it had selected weren’t going to produce the expected results, JIW was auditing just 10 bridges in Japan’s network of  714,000. Since deploying its squad of over 300 new Skydio 2 automated craft, JIW’s client list has exploded, and is now on target to surpass 700 by the end of this year. That’s a multiplier of 70 for anyone keeping score – representing an unheard expansion via new business in barely a year.

Indeed, JIW’s turnaround provides a remarkable case study of how even embracing the correct technology solutions won’t pan out unless those are matched with the right applications as well.

It didn’t take long for the company to understood its first choice of drones weren’t performing as hoped. In fact, inspections using those unmanned aerial systems (UAS) often didn’t even meet JIW’s minimal requirements. At times, they couldn’t complete assigned missions.

To collect the kind of data JIW requires for its audits, its drones needed to navigate in, out, through, and around bridge trusses. But initial craft floundered in those settings. Despite extensive training, JIW pilots struggled just to keep the drones from crashing. Before long, JIW realized a primary objective of most flights was just bringing UAS back in one piece. The drone solution wasn’t going to fit its business activity – unless effective changes were made.

Pivoting to Skydio 2 automation

Rather than give up on drones altogether, however, JIW instead began looking for UAS offering the kind of capabilities that would meet its needs.The company undertook comparative testing of Autel, DJI, Parrot, and Skydio options. The onboard intelligence of Skydio Autonomy, says JIW CEO Takumi Shibata, proved a perfect fit for his company’s needs.

Thanks to Skydio Autonomy, our inspectors can benefit from AI-powered obstacle avoidance, which enables safe flights in the GPS- and magnetometer-denied areas that are prevalent under bridges we inspect. No other drone came close to successfully completing bridge inspection missions in our trials process, and we are thrilled to be able to adopt Skydio’s new technologies.

JIW saw how Skydio Autonomy on Skydio 2 enabled effective yet safe operation in the nooks and crannies of bridge trusses. Meanwhile, AI applications in the Skydio Autonomy Enterprise Foundation platform – including Close Proximity Obstacle Avoidance, Precision Mode, and Vertical View – allowed the craft to get into previously inaccessible places and shoot footage at advantageous angles. The result was an abundance of clear, precise imagery that allows JIW to produce high quality audits that continues attracting new customers.

More drones, lower cost, increasing business

The good news for the company doesn’t end there. JIW says its current operation of over 300 Skydio craft has permitted it to hire 68 new pilots in the last year, and reduce time needed to train them from 100 to just eight hours. Once operational, meanwhile, its new drones generate cost reductions of 75% compared to pre-UAS inspections. 

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