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How Nondestructive Testing and Structural Health Monitoring Technologies are the Key to Creating the “Smart Cities” of the Future

How Nondestructive Testing and Structural Health Monitoring Technologies are the Key to Creating the “Smart Cities” of the Future

By Dr. Necati Catbas, P.E.

America is facing an infrastructure crisis. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 42 percent of America’s 617,000 bridges are at least 50 years old and 7.5 percent are considered structurally deficient. People are taking 178 million trips across these structurally deficient bridges every day, creating an urgent need for updates to our infrastructure maintenance program.

Fortunately, there has been an increase in awareness and response to this issue not only among the engineering community, but in Congress. On August 10, the U.S. Senate passed the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, the largest federal investment into infrastructure since the construction of the interstate highway system. Dedicating $109 billion toward roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects, this infusion of capital will go a long way toward repairing and rebuilding our infrastructure across the nation with resiliency, equity and safety top-of-mind for commuters of all kinds – from those driving their cars on the roads to cyclists and pedestrians.

Infrastructure is the foundation of a healthy economy and drives its ability to be competitive. It’s about more than just moving goods and people from one place to another. Modern infrastructure is essential to creating new opportunities in the economy of the future. With a well constructed and well maintained infrastructure, we can connect low-income and underserved communities with unrestricted access to equitable, high-paying jobs. These roads also connect supply and demand chains, which as we’ve seen throughout history, can cause many issues when their integrity is compromised by factors outside of our control, such as natural disasters. It is up to us to ensure these essential tools remain intact for generations to come.

Our nation’s infrastructure experiences inevitable aging and degradation, requiring engineers and other essential road workers to perform nondestructive testing to determine if repairs need to be done for them to continue performing at optimum – and safe – levels.

Nondestructive testing (NDT) and structural health monitoring (SHM) play an integral role in objective assessment and maintaining our roads and bridges, but it comes at a cost to commuters. Research from the ASCE shows motorists pay more than $1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel as traffic jams and road closures due to structural testing impact their commute times. Testing can also be risky for road workers just feet away from fast-moving traffic.

Improving the way the structural health of roads, bridges, and other elements of infrastructure are monitored could not only result in less wasted time and money for motorists and a safer environment for engineers and road workers, but it could also play a major role in building the “smart cities” of tomorrow. Transtek International Group (TIG), a technology spin-off housed in the University of Central Florida’s Business Incubator, came to life after the team completed the National Science Foundation I-Corps program and was encouraged by the university to turn our years of nondestructive testing and structural health monitoring research into a viable product. Yet, recognizing that this type of revolutionary innovation needed more than just our team, we formed a unique cross-regional partnership with Dr. Rasim Guldiken at the University of South Florida (USF) through our partners at the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.

An economic development initiative spanning 23 counties across the state of Florida, the Corridor supported us throughout the process, even before we received funding, by providing us a letter of support which also guaranteed additional funding if we were accepted for an SBIR grant. We submitted our grant proposal and have since received funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the next two years. Additionally, as part of the Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program, our regional partnership has further evolved, allowing student researchers from USF to assist with the project as they work toward their doctoral and master’s degrees.

Together, we’re developing a patent-pending Fast Track Ultrasonic Imaging technology that can determine key evaluation markers such as load carrying capacity, load rating, and concrete surface inspections simply by driving a specialized vehicle across the road or bridge. While today’s nondestructive testing is a lengthy, manual process, this would allow us to determine potential issues within a structure in a matter of minutes, rather than hours. Plus, using fast-acting ultrasonic imaging, we can measure factors unseen to the naked eye, such as the durability of the concrete.

While the technology certainly has numerous uses and implementations that can be used today for the health and safety of our roads and bridges, it possesses many more opportunities extended beyond this use as we look to the future of integrated “smart cities.” A decade ago, we were simply driving cars on the roadways. Today, our cars have the same computing ability as the computers in our homes and the smart devices in the palms of our hands. Imagine if we could use this technology to harness some of that computing power to help send back data on the health of all structures – not just our bridges.

Today, the technology is used by specialized experts in the engineering field. Tomorrow, it could be a commonplace technology that you find installed on every car on the road or in our mobile devices. For example, cars driving across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida with this technology could measure the vibrations and, if outside of the standard range of limits, could automatically send that data back to infrastructure engineers, alerting them of the maintenance needed.

Unique handheld systems carried by people or small autonomous robots entering and exiting buildings, moving downtown or traveling on the roads could automatically send data to the decision-makers who own those structures, allowing them 24/7 access to data that will not only tell them the structure’s present-day status, but can also be used to predict its future response to various factors. Imagine the implications this type of technology could have in the wake of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake. These already-in-place sensors could report back on how the structure fared during the event and what repairs it may need afterward.

The technology could be utilized in other capacities through private civil engineering firms for other structures such as highway bridges, airports, convention centers, theme parks and attractions. Such NDT and SHM technologies along with our computer models create a digital representation of the civil infrastructure, commonly called digital twins. 

Imagine a theme park that installed these sensors on every ride to receive constant updates about the health of the infrastructure supporting those rides. The sensors along with the specialized models would give preemptive alerts that could avoid unnecessary breakdowns, saving theme park operators time and money, and resulting in less downtime for popular attractions. We should mention that some of these sensor technologies are already utilized. The uniqueness of our work is that we are developing novel sensing and improved systems integrated with our novel software components and computer models.

There are unlimited possibilities ahead of us for the future of structural health monitoring, nondestructive evaluation, and their applications to infrastructure and other areas of industry. Our company is proud to be one of many helping to bring that future to reality faster. The components for a smart city as I described already exist: we have the sensors, communication tools for these sensors to transfer data, and our proprietary signal processing technology. When we have more opportunities to prove that this type of integrated sensor monitoring and communication is viable on various structures, we’re one step closer to changing the game on how all structural monitoring is performed and how we manage our infrastructure assets with actionable digital data. Our expectation is to be the forefront developer and provider of these technologies to reduce cost of operation and maintenance while increasing the safety of structures.

We’re already seeing this play out with the next generation of engineers coming through UCF’s smart cities degree program. If we teach the next generation that this type of technological innovation is happening now, they can stand on our shoulders as researchers, businessmen, and women to implement the technologies of tomorrow – building the integrated smart cities that, right now, may seem like a far-off dream.

Our journey at TIG all started with a challenge to innovate, and formed an unlikely partnership between a private business and university researchers, proving that out-of-the-box thinking is essential to accelerating innovation. I encourage you to reach out to your local universities to form your own unlikely partnerships so that, together, we can create a better future for ourselves and the next generation long before the world ever thought possible.