Time ticks relentlessly, striding ahead and sapping the strength and prime of life of everything in its path, including the steel and concrete of the nation’s infrastructure.
It is ironic that a country so enamored with eternal youth, ignores the consequences of aging of its infrastructure. Four out of every ten bridges in the US are at least 50 years old. The national bridge inventory shows the existence of 614,387 bridges, excluding the many county bridges that are 20 feet long or less. According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the nation’s infrastructure has scored D+, and includes 55,909 “structurally deficient” bridges, which is 9.1% of all bridges. Red flags are waving urgently, desperately, but no one, least of all the authorities, appears to be concerned. Life goes on merrily, and every day, 88 million trips on an average, are made across the country’s “structurally deficient” bridges.
The slight decrease from the number of bridges earlier categorized as “structurally deficient,” does not erase the fact that the years are fast piling up and many bridges are nearing the end of their design life. And, just like with everything else, they need significant repair and maintenance to continue their serviceability and add on more years to their service life. According to recent estimates, there is a backlog of a colossal $123 billion for rehabilitating decrepit bridges to keep them in working condition. According to estimates of the Federal Highway Administration, $20.5 billion investment over the next 16 years is required to repair and replace bridges. There appears to be little choice in the matter of incurring the expenditure to keep existing bridges in decent health, for building new bridges is prohibitively expensive.
What is perplexing is that despite huge amounts of money spent consistently on inspection and repair and maintenance work, the bridges have not regained their health, and are still in a state of grave deterioration, and red flags are still rustling urgently. Taxpayer money has obviously not been well-spent.
This begs the question, when preventive maintenance is lighter on the nation’s purse than replacing parts of bridges, why isn’t more care given to the process of maintenance, which starts with bridge inspection?
It is self-explanatory that unless a correct diagnosis of the illness is made, the cure is not going to be effective, whatever the money spent on repair and maintenance.
Diagnosis of the health of bridges happens through bridge inspection. And today, this process has become so easy and convenient because of technology. Technology has advanced to the point of robotic devices being able to provide the absolute precision of quantitative data for an entire bridge, not just for sections of it. And the data is thorough and decisive enough to expose any problem minutely. The data is able to give clues to anything irregular, even before the issue becomes a problem. To repeat a cliché – a stitch in time saves nine.
This immediate and unvarnished presentation of the state of disrepair, will save the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT), unnecessary expenditure in the form of bloated man hours of bridge inspection. Also, resources could be immediately deployed for repairs as the problem has been identified. Technology thus purposefully applied, can extend the service life of a bridge by many years.
Despite all the known advantages of using technology in bridge inspection, why are bridge inspections avoiding technology and relying solely on the subjective judgement of bridge inspectors?
Manual inspections are so subjective that 10 different inspectors could give 10 different reports upon inspecting the same bridge. The US, as the world’s only super power, should be setting standards for the rest of the world to follow. But as Doug Thaler, President of the robotic engineering firm, Infrastructure Preservation Corporation (IPC), said, “We are still dragging a chain across a bridge deck to listen for potential issues, and it just seems so archaic.”
About 15 years ago, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), admitted “For more than 30 years, inspectors relied largely on visual inspections to evaluate the condition of bridges.” FHWA also admitted that Nondestructive Evaluation (NDE) technologies were not being used as widely as they should be, and that “New NDE technologies increasingly are sought to solve difficult inspection challenges that are beyond the capability of normal visual inspections.”
The reason for the stubborn resistance to technology lies in the antiquated standards followed in awarding contracts for bridge inspection.
USDOT engages large engineering firms to conduct bridge inspections. The inspections projects are handled by Project Managers who supervise inspectors who use antiquated methods to inspect the health of bridges. According to budgeting guidelines, the inspectors charge for man hours expended on inspections. Currently, man hours expended is a massive cost component of bridge inspection projects. The engineering firms charge the government based on man hour costs.
If robotic devices are employed instead, the number of man hours required for inspection will reduce drastically, and engineering firms fear the loss of revenue. Therefore, Project Managers handling USDOT projects bluntly reject and resist the advent of robotic engineering as an alternative methodology to manual inspections.
However, as Thaler says, if the senior management of these engineering organizations, is able to move with the times and be bold in embracing technology, the organizations’ profit margins could increase as much as 20-30%. Expert marketing strategist Geoff Livingston says,” I see the movement towards AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robotics as evolutionary, in large part because it is such a sociological leap. The technology may be ready, but we are not – at least, not yet.”
Nevertheless, one can postpone the inevitable only for so long. The advantages of technology will be realized sooner rather than later. As it is, Thaler has observed USDOT’s interest in the absolute precision of quantitative data that robotic devices can provide.
Furthermore, it would be in the interests of the engineering companies to leave their comfort zones, abandon old habits and embrace change. American author Stewart Brand said, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”
Company Name: Infrastructure Preservation Corporation
Contact Person: Doug Thaler
Email: Send Email
Phone: 727-372-2900 Ext. 24
Address:5520 Rio Vista Dr
State: FL 33760
Country: United States