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FHWA demonstrates bridge inspection robot

A new robot is being demonstrated to state departments of transportation (DOTs) to assess its ability to help maintain the deteriorating infrastructure that threatens the integrity of the USA’s highway system. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has demonstrated its RABIT (Robotic Assisted Bridge Inspection Tool), which was designed and built by the Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation, to officials from Pennsylvania DOT. The FHWA has purchased five of the devices at about US$1m each and is testing them throughout the country as part of its Long-Term Bridge Performance Program. PennDOT officials expressed hope that the price would fall as more are produced, allowing the state to purchase the device in the future, if it continues to prove suitable during the demonstration program. RABIT is being fine-tuned while it assesses 24 bridges in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington DC. The system got a resounding vote of confidence in the spring, when it received the Charles Pankow Award for Innovation from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

The four-wheel RABIT carries high-resolution cameras and sensors that measure: electrical resistance, to measure corrosive materials in the concrete; impact echoes; and ultrasonic surface waves, to evaluate concrete delamination and deck strength. The device also uses ground-penetrating radar to map rebar and other metallic objects. The RABIT can cover 4,000 square feet of bridge deck per hour and uses GPS to record and mark location data within a structure. The data collected by the robot is transmitted wirelessly to a computer system in an accompanying vehicle for engineers and inspectors to process. Over the next five years, the agency plans to use RABIT to scan up to 1,000 bridges across the country.

“The robot is not smart,” explained Joey Hartman, director of the FHWA’s Office of Bridges and Structures. “It’s not reading data and then using that to make decisions about how it is interrogating the bridge deck. But it does add terabytes of valuable data that previous methods of inspection couldn’t deliver. We still drag chains on top of a bridge. And based on years of experience, a bridge inspector would understand how the resonance that was caused by the chain dragging could indicate areas of delamination, areas in the concrete where splitting is occurring and where a more detailed evaluation may be needed.” Lou Ruzzi, bridge engineer for PennDOT’s District 11, commented, “It looks like some exciting technology. It’s like using an MRI for bridges to catch structural problems earlier, therefore leading to less expensive repairs. The RABIT performs data collection in about an eighth of the time than is currently done manually.”

June 16, 2014

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