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Researchers Develop Method to Monitor Bridge Safety

System Will Use Latest Technology

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Regular inspection and maintenance of highway bridges are essential in avoiding costly repairs and catastrophic structural failures, which can lead to loss of lives, property and business.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

America’s transportation infrastructure is in bad shape. Many of the nation’s roads, highways and bridges are in need of maintenance, repair or overhaul. In Massachusetts alone, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has identified a total of 210 bridges on the national highway system as “structurally deficient.” 

To help inspect and monitor the structural health and integrity of highway bridges, a team of researchers led by UMass Lowell has developed a low-cost, automated and efficient method for checking critical bridge components.

Called the Multi-modal Remote Sensing System (MRSS), the project is funded with a two-year $1.3 million grant from the DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration.

Civil engineering Prof. Tzu-Yang Yu is the project’s principal investigator (PI). His co-PIs include Prof. Susan Faraji of Civil Engineering and Profs. Christopher Niezrecki and Peter Avitabile of Mechanical Engineering. George Kachen of the Office of Commercial Ventures and Intellectual Property is helping with the project's intellectual property and the commercialization of any products that may evolve from it. Other team members are based at the University of Illinois, Chicago; Trilion Quality Systems; LR Technologies and HNTB Corp.

“Managing the country’s growing number of deteriorated highway bridges and being able to accurately inspect them in a timely and cost-effective manner is a major challenge in the United States today,” says Yu. “Traditional non-destructive testing/inspection methods cannot provide an accurate and rapid evaluation on a routine basis to prevent deteriorated bridges from sudden collapse.”
He says existing bridge inspection techniques, which include visual inspection, ultrasound and mechanical sounding, are typically time-consuming, labor-intensive and costly. 

“Safety concerns for the workers and motorists, the resulting traffic jams and the subjective nature of visual inspections are additional disadvantages with current methods,” he says.

The MRSS will use innovative continuous-wave imaging radar, high-resolution optical cameras for digital image correlation, GPS and position sensors and a laser ranger for quick, on-the-spot inspection as well as fiber optic sensors for long-term, continuous monitoring.

In addition to detecting surface cracks in concrete piers and rusting in steel girders, the system will allow inspectors to monitor structural behavior and detect surface changes such as bulging, cracking or stress/strain. 

“MRSS represents the next-generation of portable bridge-inspection technology,” says Yu. “The same remote-sensing capabilities can be used in other applications such as structural inspection and monitoring of high-rise buildings.”