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From the Editor: Bridges to the Future

Mark Scacco on July 2, 2018 - in Articles, Column

Every time my sister crosses a bridge, she gets anxious. This has happened her entire life, and, although not quite panic-attack-inducing, the anxiety is palpable. The fear of crossing bridges is common enough that it has a name: gephyrophobia. Trained as a structural engineer, I often marvel at the amount of weight a bridge carries and how many people cross them without ever giving it a thought. That is, until bridges make the headlines when tragedy strikes, and then bridges are on everyone’s mind (but usually only for a brief moment).

Fortunately, bridge failures are rare and therefore typically not at the forefront of the national conversation. However, obscurity is a double-edged sword, as the desperate need for investment in our nation’s bridges also often goes unnoticed by most of the public.

Historic Bridge Done Right

These thoughts were on my mind as I started to investigate and write the cover story for this issue of Informed Infrastructure (see “A High-Visibility Project: Examining the Historic and Beautiful New Portageville Bridge,” page 20). It was refreshing to research a positive story about a proactive bridge study and eventual replacement. Unlike most bridges, the Portageville railroad bridge in Letchworth State Park in New York is highly visible and often on the minds of the 1 million plus annual park visitors, as it sits in one of the most scenic and popular parts of the park.

Via an iterative process that involved the bridge owner, public, design team and regulatory agencies, a 125-year-old bridge with cultural and historical significance was replaced with a functional and beautiful structure designed to last well into the future.

Jumping Forward

Shifting gears from the late 1800s when the original Portageville bridge was built, I recently attended the Siemens’ Innovation Day in Chicago to learn about advances in emerging construction technology that are poised to become a significant part of our industry in the near future. The event included a combination of immersive demonstrations and engaging lectures showcasing the company’s digital strategy for the United States and providing a look at the face of infrastructure in the not-too-distant future.

What struck me most (and still rattles around in my head) is how artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) are beginning to permeate nearly every corner of modern life. From medical diagnostic tools to electricity generation and transmission to digital rail service to smart buildings to 3D-printed gas turbine blades and more, we’re at a historic moment in human history when Big Data—facilitated by IoT devices—coupled with AI is beginning to transform civilization.

One of the game-changing (and coolest!) demos was the use of augmented reality (AR) for training and maintenance. In the demonstration, an onsite power plant maintenance team—equipped with AR eyewear—was helped in real-time by a remote support team located thousands of miles away. As the technician approached the equipment, digital assists overlaid the actual equipment, guiding them with the necessary steps to correct the problem. The implications and potential uses for such technology are far reaching.

Although examples of AI and IoT in construction and engineering are nascent, this tech is coming, and it will impact our industry in ways we’re only starting to imagine. It’s not a matter of if, just when. What do you think? Drop me an email, and let me know.

Mark Scacco

About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is the Editor in Residence for Informed Infrastructure magazine and since 2001 has been an AEC industry consultant. He is the president of Scacco LLC and can be reached at mark.scacco@scaccollc.com.

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