Many of the constructions that aren’t properly checked upon can suddenly break down. This is a single event, that can cause a great number of lives to be lost, like in the case of the I-35W bridge, that once stood over the Mississippi river in Minnesota. The bridge collapsed back in 2007, and 13 people lost their lives, all because of unnoticed defects in the steel plates of the bridge.
Such tragedies have inspired scientists to create a special new robot helper, one that can do the bridge checks much cheaper, and way more accurate.
Earlier, in order to check the state of concrete and steel structure underneath the bridge, the inspectors had to drill into the road. Radars have made this much easier from 1980, but even by using them, the process is still expensive, and closing the roads was necessary. Let’s not forget the always-present possibility of a human error, as was made obvious by the I-35W.
In order to address this problem, University of Nevada’s Spencer Gibb and his colleagues worked on creating the fully automatic robot that will be able to inspect bridges and do it without having to stop the traffic or close the roads.
The robot has four wheels, is waterproof, and uses batteries for powering up. It’s equipped with ground-penetrating radar, as well as electrical resistivity sensors. With this tech, it’ll be able to locate any existing defect, including corroded steel parts, or damaged concrete deep within the bridge. It can even find surface cracks with the built-in camera.
The robot’s machine-learning algorithm will convert all of the readings into a colour-coded map of the entire bridge, with areas of weakness being highlighted, and then the map will be sent to human inspectors. With the system like this, every flaw of every bridge will be immediately recorded, and fixing can be performed.
Several tests of the robot’s capability were already conducted on four bridges, which are located in New Hampshire, Nevada, Montana, and Maine. The general impression is that the robot works better and more accurate than humans. Gibb has stated that “The robot takes the same amount of time to physically scan the bridge as a human inspector but it processes the data in minutes instead of hours.” Next task the team has decided to do is reducing the time needed for the inspection.
If they do this, the robot will inspect faster, calculate the problems within minutes, and cost a lot less than an entire team of inspectors, plus, there won’t be any traffic jams because of the process. Other options considered by other researchers include the use of inspection drones, or even building the sensors into the bridges themselves.
Australian Queensland University of Technology’s Tommy Chan believes that the human experience shouldn’t be completely removed from such inspections. However, the lack of human error that the robots can provide us with is definitely something that could and should be used in the process of inspecting such important structures.