Humans are creatures of habit, and most are reluctant to step outside their comfort zone. This timeless truth is evident on many fronts, but in technology, its impact is looming large and challenging, with the potential to bring about national catastrophe.
American author and Professor of Biochemistry, Isaac Asimov, speaking at the Newark College of Engineering in New Jersey, once said, “I find, to my amazement, that throughout history there has been resistance…resistance…to every significant technological change that has occurred in the world. the face of the earth. Usually resistance comes from groups that stand to lose influence, status, money… as a result of the change.”
Professor Asimov’s comments are very astute in observing bridge inspections in the US. One could even say that truer words were never spoken. As the only superpower in the world, the US is expected to set a standard for the rest of the world to follow. So it seems unbelievable, even surprising, to observe the ancient methodology still widely used in examining the country’s vital bridges. Why? And, even with advances in technology, bridges are still manually inspected. Why?
And it’s certainly not out of wanting a viable alternative. Doug Thaler, President of Infrastructure Preservation Corporation (IPC) said, “Modern technology greatly empowers today’s Inspection and Engineering staff. Traditional infrastructure inspection methods are more than 50 years old and quite outdated. New technologies provide quantitative data that makes inspections much easier. effective, and also allows DOT to better allocate existing funds within their current maintenance budget.”
The Federal Government awards contracts to large Engineering companies. Engineering companies already have funds in their hands when projects are delegated to different divisions within the company. The Bridge Inspection Department continues to assign tasks to the Inspector according to “billable hours”. This is what happened for years. And they continued unchanged despite the many red flags waving frantically at them.
The collapse of the 35W Interstate Bridge over the Mississippi River during rush hour on August 1, 2007, which killed 13 people, injured 145 and destroyed 111 vehicles, was later attributed to serious defects in the original bridge design. Manual inspection never catches this because the focus on design aspects is beyond the scope of manual inspection. The bridge was weakest at the point where it should have been the strongest, and everyone was unaware of the disaster waiting to happen. Technology may have prevented the catastrophe because the data obtained was scientifically accurate and consistent, and would have shown anomalies that were not noticed in manual inspections.
Doug Thaler recounted how IPC recently inspected a small bridge in Florida using BridgeScan™ which is an effective tool for quickly determining the condition of an aging bridge deck. The engineering company that got the contract to repair the bridge suspects there is a problem, but the Ministry of Transportation is not sure there is a problem. Data provided by BridgeScan™ IPC identifies some issues that weren’t even foreseeable, and that results in more projects for engineering companies – and more revenue generated in the process.
“Therefore, rejecting the use of technology from small companies with the mistaken belief that the larger engineering companies will make a loss is an absolute fallacy,” Thaler said.
Most of America’s bridges and highways were built in the 1950s, and they were consistently forced to carry more traffic than they were originally intended and designed to do. In addition, modern vehicles are significantly heavier than the vehicles of earlier times which provided weight guidance for the bridge when the blueprints were made.
Federal and State guidelines for manual inspection of bridges are also about fifty years old, with very subjective methods. However, about 15 years ago, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), acknowledged “For more than 30 years, inspectors have relied heavily on visual inspection to evaluate the condition of bridges.” FHWA also acknowledges that Nondestructive Evaluation (NDE) technology is not being used as widely as it should be. Even 15 years ago, FWHA realized, “New NDE technologies are increasingly being sought to solve difficult inspection challenges that are beyond the capabilities of normal visual inspection.”
FHWA, on the instructions of Congress established the Center for Non-Destructive Evaluation Validation (NDEVC), which, in 1998, was involved in researching the accuracy of the bridge inspection process. In the course of its study, NDEVC found that manual In-Depth Inspections may not actually be able to detect many of the types of flaws used for the Inspection.
IPC has set new frontiers in nondestructive technology (NDT), with a robotic system that can identify damage to concrete and other structural materials at an early stage, and recommend repairs before the damage spreads and jeopardizes bridge safety.
IPC inspection technology, which automates bridge inspections through low-cost drone and robotic systems, will truly strengthen the prospects of engineering companies to engage engineers and technical staff in better bridge maintenance work. In this way, these companies can shore up their revenues, and their profits in ways they never thought possible.
Thus, engineering companies need to change with the changing needs of today. Sticking to outdated methods would not only cost the country and valuable property, it would also rob engineering companies of valuable opportunities to increase their capabilities and profit margins.
The American philosopher Wayne Dyer once said, “If you change the way you see things, the things you see will change.”