Infrastructure Outlook: A Bridge Too Far (Gone)?
One of the most frustrating things about contemporary times is that people are unable to change their mindset as fast as technology progresses. According to American design expert Donald A. Norman, “Technology may change rapidly, but people change slowly.” And Steve McCurray, the American photographer best known for his world-famous photo of the “Afghan Girl,” says, “Technology changes, times change, but the essence of the culture and the people basically stays the same.”
The truth of these observations is self-evident. When decision makers are unable to leave their comfort zone and refuse to change with the times, it can adversely affect the entire nation. A glaring example of such inflexibility is found in the manner of inspecting bridges in the United States in the context of maintenance and repair.
According to an updated National Bridge Inventory in 2017, there are approximately 607,380 bridges in the United States. Of these, 65,605 were described as “structurally deficient,” and 20,808 were flagged as “fracture critical”; 7,795 bridges were flagged as “structurally deficient” and “fracture critical,” placing them at a higher level of danger of collapsing. Being “fracture critical” is scary, because if just one vital component of the bridge is compromised, the bridge could collapse.
So why have so many national bridges been allowed to go downhill to such critical levels of deterioration?
Federal and state guidelines for manual inspection of bridges are about 50 years old. Furthermore, inspection methods are extremely subjective. “That we still drag a chain across a bridge deck to listen for potential issues just seems archaic,” notes Doug Thaler, president of robotic engineering firm Infrastructure Preservation Corp. (IPC).
Thaler is challenging the current infrastructure maintenance scenario with modern technology and robotics, which bring an element of objectivity, precision and timeliness into discovering bridge deterioration. He points out that early detection of degeneration and timely repairs will help extend the service life of most bridges: it’s akin to “a stitch in time saves nine.”
For many years, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) has been assigning bridge inspections to large engineering firms. After projects are awarded, they’re headed by project managers with specific people under them who carry out inspections using methods that belong in a bygone era. The government then is charged for man-hours expended on bridge inspections, a huge cost component of such projects. That’s the way things have always been done, and no one is willing to change the status quo—although there’s enough reason to seek change.
The use of robotic devices will significantly reduce man-hours required for inspection, so project managers handling USDOT projects have a financial reason to resist the advent of robotic engineering as an alternative methodology.
However, according to Thaler, if the senior management of engineering organizations can move with the times and be bold in embracing technology, the organizations’ profit margins could increase as much as 20 to 30 percent. Adds marketing strategist Geoff Livingston, “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, the advantages of technology will be realized sooner rather than later. Thaler already has observed USDOT’s interest in the absolute precision of quantitative data that robotic devices can provide. Furthermore, such quantitative data can be provided for the entirety of the bridge, not just for sections. And the data are thorough and decisive enough to expose problems minutely.
Such immediate and unvarnished presentations of the state of disrepair will save USDOT unnecessary expenditures in the form of bloated man-hours of bridge inspection. Also, resources could be immediately deployed for repairs as soon as a problem is identified. Technology, purposefully applied, can extend the service life of a bridge by many years.
In addition, extensive repair and maintenance work on roads always leads to closures, with heavy machinery creating congestion and possible safety issues for inspectors and the public. Robotic devices, however, don’t require road closures and don’t pose any danger to people in the vicinity. As such, the technology can minimize inconvenience to road users.
The benefits of employing this new technology are so obvious that unswerving allegiance to outdated methods is mystifying. As social media specialist Simon Mainwaring says, “Change is almost impossible without industry-wide collaboration, cooperation and consensus.” And American author Stewart Brand notes, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”
As much as old habits are difficult to overcome, survival requires embracing change. Building new bridges is a prohibitively costly exercise. Therefore, custodians of the nation’s infrastructure need to commit to caring for existing bridges and taking advantage of new technology to maximize their lifespan.
Engaging robotic engineering services is the way forward in bridge inspection. It will bring the changes that USDOT is seeking in terms of timely and decisive information, leading to high-quality maintenance and repair as befits an age of technology. After all, technology does not drive change, it only enables change.