You can’t maintain infrastructure if you don’t know its condition. But when working in northern Alaska, keeping the roads, bridges, and other key infrastructure in good repair takes some extra work. Inspections cost time and money, and sometimes you need a little extra help keeping an eye on things.
“We’re covering an area that’s 1.5 times the size of Texas,” says Ryan Anderson, Northern Region director for the Alaska Dept. of Transportation and Public Facilities. “We’re from the Bering Sea to the Yukon Delta, from the Alaska Range up to the Arctic Ocean.”
With a staff of only about 600 people, Anderson has had to rely on methods other than in-person inspection to track the condition of roads and bridges in Northern Alaska. Plane flights can help, but the most valuable tool in recent years has been high-resolution satellite imagery, not only for maintaining existing infrastructure but planning future projects.
“Sometimes we know we have a project coming up in a couple years, or an ongoing construction project,” says Anderson. “Or we hear about a storm event on the Bering Sea, and we can see how our coastal infrastructure is holding up. The big benefit of this data is to see comparisons over time.”
While using satellites for this sort of coverage is nothing new, the Alaska DOT has been pushing its imagery provider into new areas. “We’ve been supporting the Northern Region for over 20 years,” says Jeremy Hale, senior manager for sales and partnerships at Maxar Technologies, a satellite imaging and spatial intelligence company. “We’ve built 280 satellites, and we’ve built the technology to extract the relevant information from this data.” But extremely high-resolution satellite imagery is only the start, as Hale has found in working with the Alaska DOT. “We cut our teeth working closely with the DOT in the Northern region,” he says. “If you’re not familiar with the territory, it has some of the most unique challenges of any transportation group I’ve come across.”
But things have come a long way from Hale sending Anderson week-old satellite images on DVDs and hard drives by express mail. Maxar has enough satellites in orbit to take daily shots of wherever in Alaska Anderson needs a closer look, and the turnaround is hours, not days. The images go to a cloud server that can be accessed by a web portal, with no need to download the massive image files.
Having this at his fingertips helped Anderson and his team in restoring crossings over the Copper River that were rendered unusable after the river washed away the approaches in 2019. “When we deal with things like Copper River, there’s no infrastructure for collecting data and communicating it back to us,” says Anderson. “Things like our bridges out there, this is our main way to track how rivers are changing and erosion rates are changing. It’s been a great tool for that.”
Having Maxar’s growing satellite constellation take more photographs of the coastline has been invaluable as well, says Anderson. “On the west coast of Alaska we have less sea ice these days, and storms with no ice have more of an impact on coastlines. [With the satellite imagery] we can see specifically how erosion is threatening our airports and community roads.”
“When we test new technologies,” says Hale, “we are constantly thinking of DOTs, especially Alaska. A lot of organizations are scared of new things but the Northern Region is willing to try them.”