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How to ensure long-term safety and operation of bridges over the years?

Ensuring the long-term operational safety of bridges is of paramount importance. These vital components of our road networks must be meticulously maintained to safeguard the well-being of road users and guarantee uninterrupted transportation flow. With a significant portion of the world’s concrete bridges aging and enduring the effects of harsh environmental conditions and increasing traffic demands, a fresh approach to maintenance and preservation is imperative.

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) conducts a comprehensive assessment of the state of America’s infrastructure, providing it with grades based on its condition and the necessary investments. The latest report, as of 2021, awarded America’s infrastructure a grade of C-, reflecting the overall condition and performance of the nation’s vital infrastructure systems.

One crucial aspect of this assessment is the state of the country’s bridges. Across the United States, there are more than 617,000 bridges, forming an essential part of the transportation network. However, a substantial concern arises from the fact that 42% of these bridges are at least 50 years old. These aging structures require significant attention and resources to ensure their continued safety and functionality.

A particularly worrisome statistic is that 46,154 bridges, equivalent to 7.5% of the nation’s total, are considered structurally deficient. In engineering terms, this classification implies that these bridges are in “poor” condition. Structurally deficient bridges are those that exhibit significant deterioration, wear, or other issues that may affect their safety and functionality. Addressing these concerns is a pressing matter for the nation’s infrastructure and transportation systems.

Interestingly, in recent years, there has been a decrease in the number of structurally deficient bridges, despite the average age of America’s bridges increasing to 44 years. This positive trend is a testament to the maintenance and repair efforts undertaken to improve the condition of the country’s bridge infrastructure. However, it is crucial to note that the rate of these improvements has slowed in recent years, raising concerns about the long-term sustainability of these efforts.

Factors Contributing to Bridge Aging

Bridges, while vital components of our transportation infrastructure, are subject to various factors that contribute to their aging over time. Understanding these factors is essential for proper maintenance and the preservation of bridge integrity.

Bridges, while vital components of our transportation infrastructure, are subject to various factors that contribute to their aging over time. Understanding these factors is essential for proper maintenance and the preservation of bridge integrity.

Key contributors to bridge aging:

  • Corrosion is one of the most significant challenges in bridge aging. Bridges are exposed to the elements, including rain, humidity, and road salts, which can lead to the deterioration of steel and concrete components. Over time, corrosion weakens the bridge’s structural integrity, necessitating frequent maintenance and repair.
  • Bridges endure repeated cycles of loading and unloading as vehicles pass over them. This cyclic loading can cause fatigue in bridge materials, leading to cracks and structural degradation. Fatigue-related issues can accelerate bridge aging and require timely inspection and maintenance.
  • Environmental changes, such as temperature fluctuations and moisture levels, can cause the expansion and contraction of bridge materials. These variations in size and shape can result in stress and strain on the bridge components, potentially leading to structural damage.
  • Extreme events like earthquakes, floods, and severe storms can exert substantial stress on bridges. Such events may cause sudden and severe damage, accelerating the aging process. Bridges in regions prone to extreme events require specialized designs and maintenance to mitigate their effects.
  • Erosion, both from natural causes like water flow and human-induced factors such as vehicle emissions, can wear away the protective coatings on bridge surfaces. This erosion exposes the bridge to corrosive elements and accelerates the aging process, making regular inspections and maintenance crucial.

To combat these aging factors, proper maintenance, inspection, and timely repair are essential. Modern technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) can also help by providing real-time data for monitoring and predictive maintenance. By addressing these contributing factors proactively, we can extend the lifespan and safety of our bridges, preserving them for years to come.

The Value of Predictive Maintenance Through Data

The construction industry, while slower to embrace technological advancements compared to other sectors, is now fully committed to leveraging digital transformation to enhance its operations. The Internet of Things (IoT) has emerged as a groundbreaking method for the maintenance of transportation infrastructures. By installing multiple sensors that continuously collect data on the structural health of bridges, real-time monitoring becomes possible, enabling early detection of potential issues.

The potential of big data is undeniable, offering companies the means to collect, analyze, and apply vast amounts of information to address issues and create added value for their clients.

The Interstate 64 bridge over Shockoe Valley in Richmond.(Wyatt Gordon/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Benefits of IoT in Bridge Maintenance

  • Safety: By monitoring a bridge’s structural health and environmental conditions in real-time, IoT technology helps ensure the safety of commuters and pedestrians.
  • Cost-Effective: IoT data-driven maintenance is more cost-effective, as it reduces the need for routine and costly inspections, and repairs are done proactively, minimizing potential damage.
  • Longer Lifespan: With proper maintenance based on IoT data, the lifespan of bridges can be significantly extended, saving on reconstruction costs, and preserving essential infrastructure.
  • Sustainability: Reduced maintenance frequency and optimized traffic flow contribute to a more sustainable approach to bridge maintenance.
  • Data-Driven Decision-Making: Bridge authorities can make informed decisions based on data, ensuring resources are allocated efficiently and effectively.

CORRODEC®2G by InfrastructureTek offers groundbreaking technology with an unobtrusive yet powerful design. These sensors provide continuous remote health monitoring of bridges or any infrastructure asset. These sensors are passive and embedded within the concrete and deliver early warnings against corrosion and moisture threats to any concrete structure – long before corrosion manifests as cracks, spalls, and concrete degradation.

These sensors require a minimum of 10mm of concrete cover but can be placed as deep as 50 meters into the structure with a special antenna. They adapt seamlessly, whether oriented vertically or horizontally, catering to the unique needs of the structure.  They can be placed into new concrete construction, or they can be installed into an existing structure that may be susceptible to corrosion degradation.

The collaboration between I-Tek and Infrasolute is poised to usher in a new era in bridge maintenance in the USA. By harnessing the power of big data, AI, and machine learning, these organizations aim to prolong the life of bridges, ensure their safety, and optimize their maintenance, ultimately benefiting the broader transportation network and the safety of the people who rely on it. As the construction industry embraces digital transformation, the future of bridge maintenance appears brighter than ever.

IoT technology is revolutionizing the way we maintain and ensure the safety of bridges. With real-time data on structural health, environmental conditions, and traffic, bridge authorities can proactively address issues, extend the lifespan of bridges, and enhance safety. The power of IoT in bridge maintenance is not only a cost-effective approach but also a more sustainable and data-driven way to manage essential infrastructure. As we continue to invest in IoT technology, our bridges will stand strong and safe for generations to come.