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Drones and other portable technologies aid engineers
in addressing infrastructure risk and repairs.

Technology is catching up to the large-scale needs of engineers. Drones and other portable technology such as robots can now aid engineers in addressing an infrastructure’s risk and making necessary repairs. Used for a broad series of applications, drones, robotics, and the Internet of Things promise to change the way civil and structural engineers work and fix problems.

Portable technology is changing the way infrastructure is managed and repaired. Reduced project times, increased worker safety, and improved management of repairs and maintenance for roads, bridges, energy sources, and more are all benefits from using these three types of portable technology.

Drones — Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) offer reliable risk assessment and repair services. The use of drones for the U.S. energy system provides a unique set of benefits.

For years, power plants have used drones to inspect boilers, stacks, and towers. Data is transmitted through video cameras, plus LiDAR, multispectral, hyperspectral, and infrared images. High-definition video resolutions, such as 4k, provide engineers a clear, crisp view of a structure.

The Fukushima power plant site, for example, uses drones to provide visuals of reactor damage, plus gather information on radiation rates and make repairs instead of workers (https://www.allaboutcircuits.com/news/one-way-journey-for-drones-the-fukushima-incident).

Renewable energy outlets also rely on drones to inspect wind turbine blades and solar photovoltaic panels. Inspections previously required the expensive upfront cost of helicopters or cranes to check a turbine. With drones, users only need to use these pricier methods when necessary, such as for repairs.

Robotics — Infrastructure inspection robots provide more efficient, effective, and thorough assessments than traditional methods for reviewing water-related infrastructure.

Bridge, port, dam, and waterway inspections are often time-consuming due to water conditions, which can limit a dive team’s visuals. Robots using acoustic imaging provide a visual to the above-ground team, plus a rotating camera for a live image of the structure (https://www.deeptrekker.com/underwater-bridge-inspections).

If a dive team goes in, the robot can monitor and live stream the team’s progress. Most underwater robots are designed to move laterally with vector thrusters to avoid moving with the current and away from the worksite.

Internet of Things — The Internet of Things (IoT) is designed as a monitoring assistant to engineers. Smart sensors and wireless technology tools all send or upload information to a connected network — the IoT.

Engineers can access sensor status updates from almost any type of infrastructure, from a bridge or dam to a roadway or wastewater plant. Simultaneous monitoring saves time and prioritizes which problems need to be solved sooner rather than later.

Types of sensors include temperature, pressure, water quality, level sensors, and proximity sensors, which can be used in water treatment facilities, airports, and waste management.

Research for infrastructure repair technology

Research continues for ways to use portable technology to improve the repair and maintenance process for civil and structural engineers.

New, advanced sensors are in development to detect infrastructure corrosion and damage while providing more information to the engineer receiving the status alert. Other sensors would act as beta testers to assess a structure’s quality before it’s fully constructed. Sensing vibration, the sensors would score the initial structure’s strength and reliability, allowing engineers to make adjustments.

Robotics research promises interesting developments in infrastructure repair technology. A $6.4 million research project, for example, is studying how to build a system of robots to handle minor road maintenance assignments (http://newatlas.com/maintenance-drones-repair-cities-leeds/40008). It’s a setup that would allow engineers to focus on larger, more complex repair projects versus smaller, regular maintenance tasks.

Using robots as a form of infrastructure security in response to increased terrorism concerns is another research endeavor. Engineers would develop 3D elevation and obstacle maps for robots to learn and then patrol these maps in teams. Two modes of patrol would be available — a basic or a threat response mode. If a threat response were initiated, the team would re-route to the responding robot.

Drones and the IoT combine in ongoing research for managing roads and traffic (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2046043016300533). Drones would monitor traffic patterns using long-lasting hydrogen fuel cells. In cities and for major highways, this data would upload to the IoT for evaluation. Engineers would then utilize this information for future road designs or city layouts.

Engineers for portable technology

Portable technology is essential for civil engineers in the U.S. The country’s infrastructure system has reached a massive scale, yet continues to degrade and breakdown because of mismanagement.

Drones, robotics, and the IoT each offer ways for structures to be managed, monitored, and maintained effectively and efficiently by engineers. With portable technology, engineers can work smarter, not harder, to assess infrastructure risks and determine which structures need repairs first.

As engineers are the developers behind portable technology such as drones, it makes sense for engineers of different but applicable disciplines to use and modify the technology to meet their needs.

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer. She can be contacted at nicholsrmegan@gmail.com. Read more of her blogs at www.schooledbyscience.com/about