Partnership Started by Prof. TzuYang Yu

Civil engineering students at work in Lowell-1
UML civil and environmental engineering students use a portable imaging radar to inspect the Lincoln St. Bridge in Lowell.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of Civil and Environmental Engineering students is working with the city of Lowell to help inspect and monitor the city’s aging roadways and bridges under the supervision of Prof. TzuYang Yu.

The students, which include seniors Tiana Robinson ’23 and Yaneliz Garcia Ruiz ’23 and Ph.D. student Koosha Raisi ’23, are members of Yu’s Structural Engineering Research Group (SERG). 

“Civil infrastructure systems are an investment and asset in any city,” says Robinson, who hails from Washington, D.C., and minors in business administration. 

Civil engineering students at work in Lowell-2

Ph.D. student Koosha Raisi, left, and master’s student Ritham Bitchu use a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) donated by GSSI to determine the cause of a depression on the roadway pavement along Middlesex St. in Lowell.

“They provide the foundation for a functioning economy, so it’s vital that we inspect and maintain them. All structures, whether they are the sidewalks we walk on, the roads we drive on or the bridges we cross, can deteriorate over time. Thus, conducting regular inspection and maintenance helps ensure their structural integrity as well as the safety and well-being of the public from hazardous failures,” she says.

Yu says the collaboration gives students an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to real-world challenges.

“Lowell is an old, historical city, with many aging infrastructures. Some require immediate attention, some are still useable, while others can be left as is for another decade or so. We need to be able to look into the subsurface of a structure, or underground, for signs of deterioration so that the city has time to respond,” he says.

Yu says such information is crucial for municipalities, towns and cities to prioritize their limited resources for maintenance and reconstruction.

“Our team is using our own equipment in the field to save the city money and time on hiring subcontractors,” he says.

Partnership with Community and Industry

Civil engineering students at work in Lowell-3
Former graduate student Tek Dhant scans the sidewalk concrete panels along Central St. in Lowell with the GPR as seniors Yaneliz Garcia Ruiz, left, and Tiana Robinson look on.
After joining the UMass Lowell faculty in 2008, Yu worked with City Engineers Lisa DeMeo and Ting Chang in applying his electromagnetic sensing techniques to check the city’s aging infrastructure. He currently employs state-of-the-art technologies such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and synthetic aperture radar for the subsurface imaging of reinforced concrete structures.

David Cist, the chief technology officer of GSSI, a manufacturer of GPR systems, heard about Yu’s project and offered to collaborate with him. The company donated a GPR system and software to help the team collect and analyze more data. Other industry collaborators include the infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, the software development company Bentley Systems and the civil engineering consulting and design firm VHB. 

Structural health monitoring can help mitigate infrastructure-related hazards and disasters by allowing the team to assess a structure’s condition before it reaches a critical stage of degradation, says Raisi.

“With modern nondestructive testing and evaluation methods, early signs of corrosion and degradation can be identified, allowing for faster, cheaper and less complex repairs, thus saving the city’s resources and time as well as sparing drivers and commuters the inconvenience of road or bridge closures,” he says.

Civil engineering students at work in Lowell-4
Dhant and Robinson conduct ultrasonic testing of underground pipelines along Central St.
The team’s research can be applied to detecting early-stage damage not only in roadways and bridges, but also in concrete buildings, tunnels, dams, pipelines, nuclear power plants and other vital civil infrastructure systems. 

“What we do is to extend the service life of our civil infrastructures by making them more sustainable and resilient against aging and deterioration,” Yu says.

“The UML project is very helpful to the city of Lowell,” says Chang. “The use of ground-penetrating radar helps us explore and identify voids under roadways and sidewalks that can potentially turn into sinkholes. Having such information beforehand can assist us in coming up with the best possible solution.”

Yu is trying to get funding to support his educational outreach activities with the city so he can recruit more undergraduate students.

“I would be happy to expand this collaboration not only in Lowell, but to neighboring cities as well,” says Yu.

Laying a Solid Foundation for the Future

Prof. TzuYang Yu in the lab

Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. TzuYang Yu, right, with Asst. Prof. Jianqiang Wei, left, and Lowell City Engineer Ting Chang during the latter’s campus visit last September.

According to Robinson, being part of SERG’s research projects has helped her build her résumé and hone her team-building skills. The experience has fit well with her career plans.

“I chose UMass Lowell because it has a great civil engineering program and faculty, research opportunities, a bachelor’s to master’s program in structural engineering, and I got a full-ride undergraduate scholarship from the university,” she says. “I plan to pursue my master’s degree and continue my path on becoming a professional structural engineer.”

Raisi, a native of Tehran, Iran, agrees.  

“As I am involved in many SERG projects, I am pushed to learn different skills and trades in a wide range of interdisciplinary fields, which significantly benefits me as a young doctoral researcher. Moreover, our work revolves around relatively new techniques in civil engineering – that is, the use of radar for structural health monitoring, which opens the door to many future opportunities.”

He adds, “I plan to continue with my postdoctoral studies and pursue a career in industry while maintaining a teaching job in academia.”