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by on July 19, 2021
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Bridges in the U.S. are in disrepair, not for lack of funds, but because of obsolete inspection methods By Rajika Jayatilake Every government experiences a “feel good” sensation upon announcing infrastructure spending plans. President Joe Biden too recently presented an infrastructure budget. Like earlier infrastructure plans, it includes significant funding for “transportation infrastructure,” such as bridges. True enough, statistics point to an increasingly grave situation concerning the bridge network in the U.S. The 2021 Bridge Condition Report produced by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) states that according Bridge inspection to the latest federal data analysis, 220,000 bridges in the U.S., amounting to 36% of bridges in the country, need repair, while another 79,500 bridges require replacement. This doesn’t take into account county and smaller bridges in your neighborhood. Statistics such as these, of deteriorating or collapsing bridges are oft quoted to emphasize the need for more federal funding. However, the reality is that colossal budgets are already being spent, year in year out, on inspection, repair and maintenance of America’s aging bridge system. In fact all of the major bridges in the national bridge inventory system over 600,000 are scheduled to be inspected every 2 years. Then, why are bridges continuing to deteriorate and collapse despite all the money spent in repairing them? The reason is stark and undeniable. America’s bridges are collapsing not due to a lack of budget, but to persistent use of obsolete bridge inspection methods. It is a fact that while advocating repair and maintenance of bridges, policymakers continue to ignore the need for technology-based bridge inspection. And it is nothing if not tragic that the technology is readily available, but the U.S. continues to rely on subjective judgements of manual inspection methods which are at least 50 years old. Over fifty years ago, U.S. federal and state guidelines for bridge inspections focused on what was seen through the naked eye, and discovered by pinging the bridge’s surface with a hammer, or dragging a chain across the bridge surface. And all the while, traffic would be continuously speeding along an open lane a few feet away, hindering accurate diagnosis. Yet, inspections are critical to understand the health of bridges, as various factors contribute to weakening their serviceability, and shortening their lifespan; among them are material deterioration, fatigue, vibrations, foundation integrity issues, design flaws and consistent loads and overloads on the bridges. Moreover, extreme weather conditions exacerbate underlying issues. Intense heat can warp concrete and steel, while salting of bridges in harsh winters corrodes steel. While archaic manual inspections can only expose problems conspicuous on the exterior, the issues, by that time, would have become dangerous and expensive, sometimes even too late to fix. It is then usually at a point that the entire structure has to be replaced at tremendous cost. On the other hand, robotics can detect issues early in the bridge lifecycle, and Nondestructive Testing Technology (NDT) can penetrate the interior of a bridge structure, uncovering what is invisible to the naked eye. Technology can record quantitative data which is invaluable to bridge inspectors to analyze in real time, the condition of the bridge. The slightest anomaly will draw attention to a condition which may not have yet turned into a problem. The data recorded will pinpoint the exact location where a problem is in the making, which in turn will allow inspectors to use their extensive knowledge and experience to brainstorm viable options to arrest the problem at fledgling stage. Moreover, when deterioration is discovered early in the bridge lifecycle, asset managers can budget more efficiently, prioritize early repairs, with public safety in mind, and extend the service life of the structure, saving billions of dollars in untimely replacements. With this goal, a Florida-based robotic engineering firm, Infrastructure Preservation Corporation (IPC), has trailblazed technology-based bridge inspection methods that directly contrast with the ancient ones currently in use. IPC engages NDT “Nondestructive Testing” in robotic systems to identify deterioration in concrete and other structural material at the initial stages. In fact, IPC has taken modern technology to another level, by producing custom-built robotics that enable quantitative results. With these results, With IPC’s data, asset owners are able to provide an action plan for repairs before deterioration spreads and compromises the safety of bridges or other infrastructure. Moreover, IPC has shown how robotic devices are able to provide more precise quantitative data for more of the critical infrastructure than ever seen before. Despite this, President of IPC, Doug Thaler, is frustrated by the apparent refusal of some federal and local authorities, as well as giant companies, to incorporate technology in inspections. He asks, “How can you repair something when you don’t understand what is wrong, to begin with?” As Thaler has observed, manual inspections are so subjective, that 10 different inspectors could give 10 different reports upon inspecting the same bridge. Thaler explained that modern technology and robotics provide more quantitative data for less money and exceed the requirements of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the two agencies that set the standards for these inspections. He said, “Typically, and unfortunately change only takes place after a catastrophe. After the I-35 collapse of 2007 in the US, new regulations were released.” In the I-35 bridge collapse of 2007, 13 people died, 145 were injured, and 111 vehicles were destroyed. Investigations revealed a design anomaly in the bridge that went unnoticed because locating design errors is not standard practice for manual bridge inspections. Yet it was an accident waiting to happen since the bridge opened for business, because what should have been the strongest part of the bridge, was, in fact, one of its weakest. The Ponte Morandi(Viadotto Polcevera) in Italy collapsed in 2018 killing 43 people and the list goes on. The damage to human life, neighboring homes, cars and on the ongoing economy are devastating. What if a bridge collapsed on your watch and the technology existed that could have exposed the problems before they became catastrophic. If, instead of manual inspections, engineering firms utilize advanced robotic systems like IPC’s BridgeScan™ engineers would be instantly alerted by abnormal data in specific areas. Immediate action could be taken, well ahead of any catastrophe. Further, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), is a geophysical locating method employing radio waves to capture underground images in a minimally invasive manner. As Thaler points out, IPC has developed a range of sophisticated equipment based on modern technology, software and robotics to help take infrastructure and bridge inspections to a level as to improve the safety and potential for catastrophe worldwide. For instance, CableScan® inspects bridge cable stays, not just the sheathing that surrounds the steel that holds up the bridge which is now the inspection method being utilized. TendonScan® locates corrosion and loss of metallic area inside the post-tension tendons that hold up our bridges and box girder overpasses, while RopeScan is able to inspect suspender cables, broadcast towers, flare stack guy wires and transmission towers while PoleScan® is a high mast light pole inspection service with an additional robotic repair service. And all this is possible with existing Department of Transportation budgets. What is needed is not more funds, but a fundamental change in perspective. Currently, engineering firms have no incentive to replace man hours with modern technology, because the federal government funds man hours. The more hours billed; the more funds received. This makes it imperative that the entire concept of inspection changes immediately. It is only when the federal government recognizes the urgency of using technology that engineering firms will employ technology to obtain data which will then be given to inspectors for analysis and recommendations otherwise tax dollars and safety will continue to be compromised. The money currently spent on bridges is bad economic management and, ironically, is water under the bridge. Billionaire business magnate, Michael Bloomberg said, “You don’t make spending decisions, investment decisions when you don’t know what’s going to happen.” America’s bridges can be meaningfully repaired and maintained only by understanding what goes on within the bridge. Such quantitative data can only be obtained by employing technology.
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