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Robots could inspect bridges cheaper and more accurately

Posted July 18, 2019

Safety is incredibly important when it comes to infrastructure. Even small defects can cause damages amounting to millions and can even cause lethal accidents. This is why bridges are inspected every few years. These routine procedures are actually not very precise and quite costly. But now scientists from the University of Waterloo found a better way – inspections can be done by robots.

Bridges have to be inspected every few years to make sure they are still sound and safe to be used. Image credit: Andrew Bell via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

So this is how it works. Every country has its own safety standards that state how often bridge inspections need to be made. When time comes, inspectors visually assess the structure of the bridge. They check the struts, beams, other support pieces, looking for cracks, corrosion or some undesirable movement. If the bridge passes inspection, it is left alone until the next one.

This process is expensive, because it requires quite a few inspectors. There are thousands of bridges in a relatively small piece of land. And those bridges can be quite big. Inspections take time and labour, even though inspectors are performing repeatable tasks that do not really require a high skill level. But what’s the solution?

Robots. Scientists have created a wheeled ground vehicle, which rolls on the bridge, stopping by pre-programmed locations. It is able to detect defects and compile data in an organized manner. Advantages of such an automated system are reliability, repeatability, objectivity and cost-effectiveness. Data from one inspection can be overlayed on top of the other one – this helps noticing trends or new defects that weren’t there before. And the best thing is, this robot and software are not limited to bridges – in the future scientists will teach the robot to inspect aircraft, buildings, nuclear power plants, water-going vehicles and other objects.

More than anything, this presents an opportunity to assess things a little bit more objectively. Human visual assessments are not entirely accurate – robots wouldn’t get tired or bored or distracted. Sriram Narasimhan, an engineering professor at Waterloo, said: “We can do more than humans now do – and do it much better in every way. It is very inexpensive because you don’t need as many inspectors relying on specialized equipment such as lifts and you get much higher quality information”.

Human-done inspections make it difficult to compare the long-term data. of course, nowadays they are taking pictures, but comparisons are still complicated. Robots can do it much better. However, humans are not going to be replaced any time soon.

The reality is that human eye is more trustworthy – humans will be involved in the process. Also, bridge inspections sometimes require climbing onto the underside of the bridge, which is also something humans do a little better.


Source: University of Waterloo

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