Roadway pavement surface distress information is critical for effective pavement asset management, and subsequently, transportation management agencies at all levels (i.e.
, federal, state, and local) dedicate a large amount of time and money to routinely evaluate pavement surface distress conditions as the core of their asset management programs. However, currently adopted ground-based evaluation methods for pavement surface conditions have many disadvantages, like being time-consuming and expensive. Aircraft-based evaluation methods, although getting more attention, have not been used for any operational evaluation programs yet because the acquired images lack the spatial resolution to resolve finer scale pavement surface distresses. Hyper-spatial resolution natural color aerial photography (HSR-AP) provides a potential method for collecting pavement surface distress information that can supplement or substitute for currently adopted evaluation methods. Using roadway pavement sections located in the State of New Mexico as an example, this research explored the utility of aerial triangulation (AT) technique and HSR-AP acquired from a low-altitude and low-cost small-unmanned aircraft system (S-UAS), in this case a tethered helium weather balloon, to permit characterization of detailed pavement surface distress conditions. The Wilcoxon Signed Rank test, Mann-Whitney U test, and visual comparison were used to compare detailed pavement surface distress rates measured from HSR-AP derived products (orthophotos and digital surface models generated from AT) with reference distress rates manually collected on the ground using standard protocols. The results reveal that S-UAS based hyper-spatial resolution imaging and AT techniques can provide detailed and reliable primary observations suitable for characterizing detailed pavement surface distress conditions comparable to the ground-based manual measurement, which lays the foundation for the future application of HSR-AP for automated detection and assessment of detailed pavement surface distress conditions.
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