The University of Vermont (UVM) Spatial Analysis Laboratory used drone technology over Great Brook in Plainfield, Vermont to collect imagery that helped develop more resilient bridge designs for the town’s flood-prone bridges. The Spatial Analysis Lab and project partners, the Town of Plainfield, the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission (CVRPC), and consulting firm Milone and MacBroom, received a 2017 Excellence in Regional Transportation Award from the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) for the Plainfield Village Bridges Alternatives Analysis completed in February 2017. 

Awardees will attend a special round table reception at the National Regional Transportation Conference in Denver, Colorado June 28-30, 2017. 

Award-winning partners combined the use of cutting-edge Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drone technology, with hydraulic analysis to devise alternative designs for the Mill Street Bridge and the Brook Road Bridge in Plainfield. Extreme weather events, which wash large woody debris in the Great Brook down to the bridges, resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in damage to both bridges on multiple occasions over the past decade. 

“This was a unique project in which drone technology was the only way to safely, efficiently, and effectively map woody debris to provide the information needed to come up with a robust bridge design plan,” said Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, Director of the UVM Spatial Analysis Lab in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “We were thrilled to be able to use this technology to help the Town of Plainfield and work with a talented team from Milone and MacBroom and the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission.” 

O’Neil-Dunne and his team of three staff and a dozen UVM students conducted more than 30 UAS flights over a six-month period. They captured more than 10,000 images of Great Brook. Using UAS and computer vision technology, they were able to track the woody debris over time in a way that was safer and more cost effective than any previous method. 

“The UAS data were ten times more detailed and were acquired at a fifth of the cost of what could be accomplished using more traditional methods, such as manned aircraft or satellites,” said Daniel Currier, who leads the CVRPC transportation program and supports the Commission’s GIS and water quality programs. “The project represents a truly collaborative study and partnership among government, academia, and industry. The study employed innovative technology to improve safety, reduce costs, and help a small town make better decisions.” 

The town of Plainfield and its partners evaluated 25 alternatives for improving bridge hydraulics and woody debris transport to reduce flood damages. 

“The town now has a first-rate approach to mitigating this threat,” said Bram Towbin, Plainfield Town Road Commissioner. “We realized the growing frequency of bad weather requires tapping a vast pool of knowledge in order to draft the most comprehensive solution. In a time of increased competition for government funds, all the parties, combining all their varied expertise, show a path forward. Plainfield looks forward to inviting everyone to the bridge opening in the next few years.”  

"The Town of Plainfield is indebted to all the partners in this innovative effort," said Betsy Ziegler, member of the Plainfield Selectboard. "We now know much more about the nature of the Great Brook and can begin to plan for new bridges and look forward to safer community in this changing climate."  

The U.S. Department of Transportation, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, and AmericaView provided funding for the UAS flights and analysis. 

NADO, a Washington, DC-based organization, provides training, information, networking, and representation for regional development organizations in small metropolitan and rural areas of the United States. The Excellence in Regional Transportation Awards showcase organizations for noteworthy projects and practices in rural and small metropolitan transportation planning, program delivery, and special initiatives. 

“The Excellence in Regional Transportation Awards highlight the important results of programs and projects like the Plainfield project,” said NADO President Lynne Keller Forbes, Executive Director of the Southeastern Council of Governments in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Such initiatives are central to fostering quality of place, facilitating economic vitality, and improving mobility in our nation’s communities by promoting effective transportation planning and networks.”


Rubenstein School