IoT and related technologies can help transportation infrastructure managers better monitor and manage aging structures more effectively.

Daniel O'Shea

June 25, 2019

7 Min Read
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As use cases for IoT technology continue to emerge in the transportation and logistics sector, from predictive fleet and freight management to autonomous cars, another potential use case could be evolving under the wheels of the industry’s vehicles.

Transportation infrastructure — roads, bridges, tunnels, shipping ports, airports and more — also need to be managed and monitored to ensure ongoing usability and, more importantly, safety. As these infrastructure elements age, this need only becomes more critical. 

For example, a report issued earlier this year by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) showed that, in the U.S. alone, 47,052 of America’s 616,087 bridges are rated “structurally deficient” and require “urgent repairs.” Also, 235,020 bridges, or well over one-third of the total count of such structure, had some type of non-urgent repair need associated with them. In addition, the same report identified 18,842 (one in three) interstate highway bridges with repair needs.

The challenge is global. A major tragedy cast a spotlight on the problem in August 2018, when the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy collapsed, a disaster that killed 43 people. The cause of the collapse has yet to be determined, but published reports, such as a recent story in The Guardian, paint a picture of the bridge as a structure whose condition and extent of deterioration had been difficult to asses, and which was frequently subject to small-scale repairs and likely in need of much bigger ones.

In the wake of that disaster, there has been greater urgency worldwide to better assess the health of civil infrastructure elements. IoT may prove integral to that process.

The companies that construct and operate such infrastructure are starting to understand IoT can play an important role in monitoring and management of their structures. Bjarne Jorgensen, executive director, asset management for Sund & Baelt, a Danish builder and operator of bridges and tunnels, said companies like S&B need to upgrade how they manage their infrastructure assets, and that leveraging new technologies such as IoT and analytics are key aspects of such upgrades. “We can see that new IoT technologies and big data analysis makes it possible to change the maintenance strategy for time-based to predictive maintenance, as we get a much better assessment of the health of the assets,” he said.

Jorgenson added these technologies also can make it less costly and time-consuming for infrastructure companies to conduct what traditionally have been manual inspections. He said in the email,  “…We have so far seen a very costly inspection scheme due to difficult accessibility and huge structures (We are operating the third largest suspension bridge in the world.) The inspections can be carried out with higher quality and much cheaper by making inspections with drones and sensors.”

By adding data-gathering sensors to that bridge — Demark’s Storebaelt — S&B “is getting online information [concerning] vibrations in the cables and the beam,” Jorgenson said. “We will start this summer to make photographic asset inspection on concrete surfaces using drones to take the pictures and AI to analyze the photo materials.”

To improve its methods for managing and monitoring its infrastructure assets, S&B is working closely with IBM. The Danish company previously has used IBM Maximo as it enterprise asset management platform, and back in April, IBM announced that S&B is now assisting IBM in the development of its newest addition to the IBM Maximo portfolio — IBM Maximo for Civil Infrastructure.

Stephen Russo, worldwide director of cognitive city solutions IoT at IBM, said the company pursued development of IBM Maximo for Civil Infrastructure after it was asked in the aftermath of the Morandi Bridge collapse if there were technology and tools IBM could provide to help figure out what had happened.

“That (bridge disaster) was the catalyst that started it, and as we started to look at what might have caused it, and at other infrastructure failures in other parts of the world, it was clear a large amount of infrastructure was aging,” he said. “Budgets need to be managed more effectively, and risk assessments need to be done to determine and prioritize where repairs need to be done more rapidly. We saw that this was an area where there were not pervasive solutions developed today.”

Russo added that while studies like the one from ARTBA show that a staggering number of bridges and other forms of civil infrastructure may need attention, the companies managing these structures need to better understand which ones have the most pressing problems. “Just saying we’re going to replace them all is not feasible, so assessing their health and being able to make determinations of how to prioritize repairs and enhancements to these structures is important.”

Data analytics is key to that assessment process, and Russo said S&B is contributing not only industry expertise and knowledge to the ongoing development of Maximo for Civil Infrastructure, but also its own data on its structures. The aim of the IBM platform is to provide a multi-layered approach to help transportation infrastructure companies understand and leverage multiple sources of data about their structures. Ultimately, the goal is to create digital twins of bridges, tunnels and other transportation infrastructure that will allow these companies to make faster, more informed decisions, Russo said.

Some of the data will come through existing reports, inspections and blueprints. “Much of it today is hand-created and exists in a paper format, and we digitize all of that information,” Russo said. “The next piece is what can we get from IoT sensors, some of which may be out there today, such as traffic monitors, cameras that were placed for security, that have images than can be analyzed.”

But, he added, that many existing structures may need to be outfitted with additional sensors and other instruments that can detect and measure vibration, weather conditions, moisture, heat, corrosion, seismic activity, pollution and other environmental factors.

Finally, he acknowledged that still more valuable data can be layered in from other external sources, such as the flying drones mentioned by S&B’s Jorgenson. “Most inspections are done today in a manual way, but replacing that process with a drone that can fly once of a month on a predetermined flight path can bring in images and visual analytics that the manual inspection can’t,” Russo said. “Being able to see changes in the structure everywhere is critically important.”

While disasters like the one at Morandi Bridge create a sense of urgency around the need to assess and more effectively manage older civil infrastructure elements, companies like S&B and IBM also are casting a eye to a future in which technologies like IoT, AI and data analytics will be built into a new generation of transportation infrastructure right from the start.

For example, S&B is now working on the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link project, a 15-mile-long tunnel it plans to open in 2028, and which it already is touting as “Europe’s smartest tunnel.” Jorgenson said, “We will equip the Fehmarn Link with IoT enabled sensors in the construction to get 24/7 monitoring of all the assets, but also weigh-in motion and speed sensors to monitor traffic, as well as thermo-portals to track hot axles on trains and trucks to avoid accidents.”

Meanwhile, Russo said IBM will continue to expand Maximo for Civil Infrastructure by adding more operators of transportation infrastructure as partners, and expanding its list of technology partners. He said the company wants to grow its understanding of which kinds of sensors need to be placed on different kinds of infrastructure elements, as well as working with partners that have civil engineering expertise so it can determine the best locations for sensors and what kind of data needs to be collected from them,

“Looking at all the data available will give us an idea of what is happening with that structure,” he said. “The decision of what to do about it goes back to the operations and engineering staff that manage it, but we allow them to make that decision very rapidly.”

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