April 22, 2024

Jasper County roads crews use remote control car to inspect culverts

Cruisin’ down the culverts: Staff took inspiration for new tool based on Des Moines County’s creation

Randy Freese, maintenance superintendent for the secondary roads department in Jasper County, shows off the remote control car staff use to inspect culverts. The toy vehicle is equipped with a light and a GoPro camera, which records and broadcasts footage right to Freese's phone. The tool has been extremely helpful and cost next to nothing by secondary roads standards.

Randy Freese has a new car. It doesn’t get good gas mileage. It isn’t fast enough for most speed limit signs. Heck, the thing doesn’t even have turn signals nor a steering wheel nor seat cushions. But it is the only thing keeping Jasper County’s maintenance superintendent from crawling on hands and knees inside culverts.

For the better part of a year, Freese has been operating a customized remote control car to inspect hard-to-reach areas along secondary roads. It all started when secondary roads staff had to make preparations for the reconstruction of F-48 West, like examining the handful of pipes underneath the road.

“Well, I had visions of me crawling through them,” Freese said. Of course, this thought did not bode well for the longtime county employee. But after attending a secondary roads conference he got the idea of using a toy car culvert inspector from Des Moines County, which won an award for its creation in 2023.

According to data collected by Iowa State University Institute for Transportation, Des Moines County wanted a cost-effective way to inspect the inside of cross road culverts that were too small for a person to crawl through safely. Devon Bell, assistant to the Des Moines County engineer, said the car is a game changer.

“We can effectively get a good visual on the condition of our pipe, where before we didn’t have the greatest access,” Bell said in the report posted by ISU Institute for Transportation. “We inspect our pipes during preliminary design stage to see if we truly need to replace a culvert or not.”

Jasper County wanted to do something similar with the F-48 project. When Freese got the OK to move forward with the idea, he learned he could get a decked out RC car that law enforcement uses for a few thousand dollars. No way, Freese said. He was convinced he could do it for a cheaper cost.

The purchase may even go down in history as one of the cheapest investments the secondary roads department in Jasper County ever made.

Freese removed the body from a $100 rock crawler — an off road RC car — and attached a $12 light to the front, along with a bubble level and a GoPro camera that the department already had on-hand. Using an application on his phone, Freese is able to broadcast the recorded footage on the camera in real time.

“It’s for anything you can’t walk into — and it saves somebody from crawling in,” Freese said. “Of course if you flip it over, then you gotta crawl in.”

When secondary roads crews finally put the RC car to the test, they were impressed by how effective — and fun — this inexpensive method was.

Footage from the GoPro camera showed staff where the deficient areas of the culverts were located, which Freese always has at the ready in the office. The video resolution was clear as day and it gave staff the information they needed to move forward with the massive, multi-phased F-48 resurfacing project.

Freese is already thinking of ways to improve the RC car, like equipping it with a cage to better protect the GoPro or marking the tires so that he can more accurately locate possible defects or other issues inside the culverts. It’s simple, he said, and it makes parts of the job easier and less costly.

“We run pretty cheap. We’re all a bunch of farm kids so we try to find the cheapest way to do something most of the time, but we’ll also spend the money when we have to. But this was pretty cheap and didn’t have any R&D in it,” Freese said. “…I’m sure it’s going to be a tool we’ll always have now.”

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.