Posted at 10:16 AM
When someone says “innovation,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? 3D printing? Smart phones? Smart phone apps?
Last Thursday I took a break from retirement to address a small but inspiring gathering of innovators at the Civil Infrastructure Showcase hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). These are people who think about distinctly unglamorous things that are not usually associated with innovation. Like filling potholes or watching bridges rust.
Unglamorous, but really important. You can't have missed coverage of the disastrous bridge failure in Minneapolis in 2007 that killed 13 people and injured over a hundred more, but headlines like that are just the lowlights of a bad situation. Roadbed deterioration — things like potholes —cost U.S. motorists an estimated $67 billion a year in car repairs and costs. California’s farmers are suffering a disastrous drought, but nationwide we lose about 6 billion gallons of clean water a day to leaky pipelines. These are failures of infrastructure maintenance.
The hard-pressed municipal, county and state transportation agencies face many challenges, not the least of which is constrained budgets. They absolutely need to prioritize repair work, but how do you best do that? The most recent U.S. Department of Transportation figures show well over 28,000“structurally deficient” bridges currently in use.
Several of the 12 research groups that gathered at NIST last week have some ideas about that. How about small instrument packages that can be mounted around questionable bridges to monitor strain and other key values and report back wirelessly to a data monitoring system? Rural bridges usually don’t have wall outlets, so engineers from Mistras Group, Virginia Polytechnic, and the Universities of South Carolina and Miami sweated to get power requirements down to where the boards could be run by little bridge-mounted windmills—which they also developed.
CyPhy Works of Danvers, Mass., showed off a small fly-by-wire robot about the size of a coffee maker that can fly in, out and around complex bridge structures while sending back HD video to inspectors, allowing them to conduct details examinations of bridge structures without needing to close them down for the inspection. Or Northeastern University also created a vehicle that can find and map both surface and subsurface roadbed and bridge deck defects while cruising at the posted speed limit.
Potholes? UCLA and Materia Inc. have it covered with a high tech polymer material that can be poured like water over an ordinary asphalt patch. It hardens in minutes to a material that’s tougher than polycarbonate—four times tougher than the roadbed it bonds to.
I take pride in all of these projects because I managed the Commerce Department research grant program that got them going. But really, the kudos go to a bunch of hard-working and innovative engineers and scientists who clearly understand that we need take an innovative approach to solving longstanding problems like critical infrastructure, not just cool new apps.
You can learn more about the projects I mentioned and others equally impressive at www.nist.gov/tip/nist-civil-infrastructure-showcase.cfm.