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The Robotic Future of Bridge Inspection

Friday, May 17, 2013

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Robotic inspectors could soon be sweeping across the nation's bridges, collecting data and sending important structural information to their human counterparts.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration is using an innovative new robot to inspect the structural integrity of concrete bridge decks, the agency announced Wednesday (May 15).

FHWA created the robotic tool in partnership with the Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT). The bot combines advanced, customized imaging technologies to give inspectors more accurate, real-time information.

Rutgers Bridge robot
Photos: Rutgers University

The FHWA plans to use robots on 1,000 bridges nationwide over the next five years. Its "x-ray" vision identifies bridge issues without damage.

The robot combines several scans that require different sets of tools in a single sweep, using imaging technologies (similar to x-ray technology) to scan for damages without damaging the bridge deck.

5 Years, 1,000 Bridges

The FHWA is using the robot on 24 bridges in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. The five-year goal is to use the robot on 1,000 bridges nationwide.

To use the tool, the robot is driven to the site in a command center van. One or two people can monitor the controls as the robot does its work, reporting data back to the van.

The robot’s features include ultrasonic surface waves to assess the concrete deck; high-definition imaging to capture the deck surface and 360-degree images of bridge features; a ground penetrating radar to detect suspected or apparent deterioration; and a GPS to record and tag data with exact location coordinates.

“By using innovative technology, we can better identify needed bridge repairs, which is all part of the president’s vision for improved transportation infrastructure,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“This technology is helping bridge owners make smarter investment decisions,” said Victor Mendez, Federal Highway Administrator.

Long-Term Bridge Program

The tool is a product of the Long-Term Bridge Performance (LTBP) Program, a FHWA research initiative to collect and analyze data on a representative sample of bridges around the country to understand how they react under certain conditions.

The robot reports information back to its command center van, allowing inspectors to analyze bridge data in real, or almost real, time.

Led by Rutgers’ CAIT and launched in 2008, the bridge performance project is envisioned as a 20-year comprehensive examination of the nation’s “workhorse” highway bridges. Through the program, researchers will:

  • Inspect, evaluate and monitor a representative sample of bridges nationwide;
  • Examine all the physical and functional variables that affect bridge performance;
  • Create a comprehensive database of quantitative data on bridge performance;
  • Analyze and apply the data gathered to facilitate improve life-cycle cost and predictive models, better understanding of bridge deterioration, and more effective maintenance and repair strategies; and
  • Support improved design and building methods and bridge preservation practices and help develop the next generation of bridge management systems.

FHWA plans to use the data to develop a better understanding of concrete bridge deck deterioration, including the impacts of corrosion, the environment, traffic patterns and weight.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Concrete; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Research

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