Missouri S&T pioneering research in robotic bridge inspection-repair

Published: Mar. 20, 2019 at 6:30 PM CDT
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Governor Mike Parson's emphasis on fixing the state's deteriorating bridges has some potential help coming from Missouri S&T as the engineering-based university in Rolla is involved in research to make inspections and repairs high-tech.

"We're just a set of uber-nerds that love different types of technology," explained Mark Bookout, Senior Director of IT Research Support Services in describing the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle better known as "drone") part of his program at Missouri S&T. "My crew is amused because I always say that we're building toasters because it really needs to be that simple. We're making toast. My toast is bridge inspection in this case."

Near their campus in Rolla you'll see a group of Missouri S&T students and faculty members going through a mock inspection of a bridge using the latest in technology.

It's a drone that doesn't hold up traffic or put humans in precarious situations, making it easier and safer for engineers to spot deterioration.

"Building an aircraft that can do that is a significant engineering challenge," Bookout explained. "The amount of sensors they carry and the amount of data they transmit is staggering compared to what one might expect to see."

MoDOT has identified some 4,800 bridges across Missouri is in need of repair, saying that one out of every eight is structurally deficient.

A U.S. Dept. of Transportation grant of over a million dollars a year is funding a research project called INSPIRE, which stands for Inspecting and Preserving Infrastructure through Robotic Exploration.

Missouri S&T with the help of six other universities, is developing a variety of tools including robots that can crawl up the side and underside of the bridge to inspect pillars and bridge decks and drones with robotic arms.

"That arm can carry a can of epoxy, for example, and can use that flying around the bridge where you can seal a crack on a concrete wall," said Dr. Genda Chen, the Director of the INSPIRE program.

They've also developed the "smart rock", a sensor deployed in a concrete ball and placed in the foundation of a bridge to help spot the number one source of bridge collapses, scouring.

That's where the water's current washes away the soil around the piers causing instability. The smart rock sends data to the engineers from the bridge's underwater base so they can see the extent of the structure's movement.

"That is very critical for the engineer's to use in evaluating the stability of the bridge," Chen said.

It's hoped that this robotic technology will be in use by MoDOT within the next two years, but the research is in its early stages and what is being used now may be unrecognizable in the near future.

"In five years this will all be washed away," Bookout said of the current machinery. "How much will it advance? I don't know. We were all supposed to have flying cars by now. But it's going to definitely advance."

Missouri S&T is also working to develop new construction materials and methods to make the repaired bridges last longer.