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Unmanned Boats Help With MI Bridge Inspections

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

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When It comes time to conduct bridge inspections in the face of challenging scenarios such as stormy weather, the Michigan Department of Transportation has adopted the use of unmanned, remote-controlled boats.

''Any time we have a major storm event, inspectors are required to go out and monitor these bridges to make sure they're safe and that nothing catastrophic is going to happen to them,'' said Chad Skrocki, assistant bridge engineer for MDOT's Bay Region.

Previous Research

According to the state transportation department, scour—also known as the erosion of the streambed around a bridge’s substructure—is one of the leading culprits in bridge failure. When this happens, fast-moving water shifts sediment away from a bridge’s substructure, subsequently exposing piles or footings. To date, MDOT has identified more than 400 bridges located on the state's highway system, as well as 1,200 bridges on local roads, that have been dubbed "scour critical." These need to be monitored when turbulent water occurs.

When the state department inspects for scour, this customarily involves the use of a boat and metal rods probing the channel bottom, along with sonar devices or possibly weighted tape measures.

''In the past, scour inspections were difficult, especially during periods where water was surging,'' Skrocki said. ''We wanted to come up with a method that was safe and easy for inspectors to use.''

Ideally, inspectors read for scour during high-water events, but this also means potentially endangering the safety of those doing the work. There is also the potential hurdle of limited vertical clearance. In order to address these issues, MDOT started investigating alternatives in 2016.

Unmanned Boat Bridge Inspections

One promising option to stem from this research was the recommendation for the use of an unmanned surface vessel, which MDOT describes as “a remote-piloted drone boat, equipped with sonar and a camera to allow inspectors to take measurements and capture images from the shore.” Results from testing indicated that it could be a safer option, as well as less labor-intensive.

Ultimately, investigators recommended a USV called Sonar EMILY (EMergency Integrated LanYard), which consists of a water-jet-powered buoy running roughly 4 feet long, 2 feet wide and 1 foot tall. The piece of equipment features a topside camera and a sonar unit that is capable of measuring water depths, while also being able to create side-scan and down-scan images of substructures and streambeds.

EMILY, manufactured by Hydronalix, was the result of a collaboration between the U.S. Navy's Small Business Technology Transfer program and a private company, and was intended for use in research on marine mammals. The USV can be readapted to other purposes, including water sampling and underwater mapping, however. The cost of the USV, along with the laptop control unit and the necessary running gear, was estimated to sit at $50,000.

''Using the USV is much safer and less labor-intensive than traditional inspection methods for detecting scour,'' said Skrocki. ''It provides a great deal of information, in real time, to the inspector about what is occurring to the channel bottom below the water surface around the bridge substructures.''

MDOT has provided four USVs, equipped with sonar units, for testing in different locations throughout the state. Currently, there are also plans to use the USVs for getting images of bridge substructures, getting a view of the underside of structures and other purposes. MDOT trained inspectors on the usage of the USVs back in April.

   

Tagged categories: Bridges; Infrastructure; Inspection; NA; North America; Quality control; Quality Control; Research and development

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