Catapulting the Bridge Inspection Industry into the 21st Century for a Safer Public Infrastructure
Infrastructure Preservation Corporation
The Infrastructure Preservation Corporation (IPC) is delivering technology based inspections to upgrade the quality and effectiveness of bridge maintenance. The result: a safer public infrastructure.
For the first time, IPC’s infrastructure inspection services are utilizing modern technology and robotics to provide DOT (Department of Transportation) the quantitative data they need to properly allocate assets. By updating inspection methods, IPC can help make the infrastructure safer, extend the service life of our infrastructure assets and ultimately save billions of dollars in untimely replacements. The firm’s technology and services will be critical to government officials looking to revamp a troubled and aging transportation infrastructure.
IPC products and services produce data far superior to anything available to date. “We’re a professional services company,” said IPC Vice President Doug Thaler “We’re also a robotics engineering company. The primary focus of our company is to develop inspection services that provide asset managers condition assessments that contain real quantitative data.” By understanding the current condition of the United States’ infrastructure (bridges and high mast light poles) with real quantitative data, the DOT can conduct repairs that will extend their service life.
Thaler also stated, “IPC’s solutions are meant to update today’s subjective inspections to locate deterioration before it becomes an issue within the same maintenance budgets that the DOT is currently spending.”
In addition to conducting bridge inspections and high mast light poles, IPC’s technology can be utilized for water control structures, railroads, airports and even building inspections. IPC developed technology that can peer through concrete and steel and provide complete infrastructure assessments without the typical costs associated with new technology. Founder Bill Seavey stated that, “We poured a lot of time and money into developing the technology and are offering it to the DOT to improve today’s infrastructure at the same cost that they are currently budgeted. There is enough business within the current budgets that can sustain us for a long time to come as well as do some good to get our infrastructure back in shape and keep it there,” said Seavey.
The company utilizes all available technology including patented and proprietary technologies with services being performed by trained veterans in their space. In effect the same engineers currently trained and qualified to conduct the inspections are being re-trained to conduct the same inspection with the new modern equipment. This gives the asset manager the best of both worlds – an inspection with a qualified inspector using technology that provides quantitative data that allows for the best decisions to be made for maintenance and repairs.
Founded in 2009, IPC spent its formative years doing research and development and is currently poised for a big commercial breakthrough. In early 2017, IPC was invited to present two of its technologies to the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Research Council of the United States, which advises the President and Congress on various matters. The company currently works with federal, state and municipal transportation departments and assists engineering firms tasked with managing their infrastructure assets.
IPC’s solutions include CableScan® – bridge cable stay inspections, TendonScan® – post tension tendon inspections, PoleScan® – high mast light pole inspections and CrackScan® – concrete and steel crack assessments.
CableScan® is a robotic system that relays video images, still images, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and additional information of bridge cable stays to a control station. The system takes note of the location, depth and length of cracks and other problems.
PoleScan® uses high-definition video sensors mounted on a robotic device as well as LIDAR and Ultrasonics that shimmies up a high mast light pole to conduct detailed inspections of the pole, seams, luminaries and mast arms. These inspections, which are conducted every five years, can help ensure safety and prevent emergency replacements due to cracking and deterioration.
TendonScan® inspects external structural post tension tendons while CrackScan® seeks out cracks in concrete structures. IPC also uses ground penetrating radar (GPR) for NDT inspection of roadways, bridges, runways and parking surfaces for sinkholes, hidden elements and weak spots. The company utilizes customized drones for aerial inspections of railroad bridges and bridge crossings. Current builds include repair bots that can sand down rust and conduct repairs without lane closures and without having to place heavy equipment on our highways and bridges.
All of IPC’s technology has been developed and is manufactured in-house in the USA. IPC employs leading edge engineers that are expert in robotics and NDT technologies.
IPC also takes existing technology and tweaks it such as in the firm’s use of drones. An early adopter of drone technology, IPC developed a drone that can stay aloft for 55 minutes. Even most of today’s drones only stay aloft for 15 to 20 minutes and are not practical for most inspections.
IPC has additional disruptive technologies in the pipeline that will be out soon. One of these technologies does robotic structural inspections in murky water, replacing the need for a diver to actually be in the water. They can be re-trained to conduct the inspection from a boat or from shore. The technology will find, scour and map underwater piles quickly and efficiently. Another technology inspects the insides of bridge columns, again making a potentially dangerous job currently done by a human inspector much safer. The new solutions are scheduled to hit the market later this year.
As evidence, Thaler cites a recent project in which IPC traveled to Nevada to inspect a pair of bridges. A double blind study showed zero cracks using the conventional inspection, with seven using IPC’s technology. “The results were so dramatically different, that it was actually problematic for the engineering firm tasked with conducting the inspection!” he recalled.
However, Thaler does not seek to marginalize the efforts of human inspectors. “They’re doing the best job they can with the current tools they have,” he said. “Inspectors, no matter how well trained or experienced, are still prone to human error and the environmental conditions that they are tasked to work under and cannot match the information produced using the inspector with the technology.”
In addition to providing better data, IPC’s solutions are non-disruptive and can save money and even lives. In many cases, infrastructure inspections with IPC equipment do not require road closures. Cars and trucks can move smoothly, police and transport officials do not need to be posted to redirect traffic, and there are fewer accidents.
“A human inspector alone just cannot compete with the technology,” Thaler stated. “The same thing happened on a cable stay inspection we did on a bridge. The regular manual inspection was for eighty-four cables. They found one problem on one stay. We did a quality control [inspection] on just nine of those stays and found twelve issues. Some of them were actually issues that were caused by the inspectors or the painters. The painter’s bucket hitting the cable, which took the coating off, creating rust and pitting which ends up eating away at the steel,” he said.
Thaler noted, “On one bridge closure, within a six-week period, you may have five to six accidents on a bridge… There’s definitely a safety factor that we will avoid with the new technology.”
Most of the devices IPC uses to conduct inspections are remote controlled and wireless. “They can be controlled from a thousand feet away in a van or in a ground station and are priced within current maintenance budgets,” said Seavey. The company’s solutions are also very portable. “In addition to doing inspections, a number of the robotic devices that can do light repair work, such as sanding down surfaces and applying sealant or paint. Our next generation repair-bots continue to advance our efforts to improve infrastructure inspections and maintenance.”
Despite the advances in technology, Seavey emphasized IPC’s solutions will not do away with human inspectors but allow them to conduct inspections in a safer manner and provide much more detailed results. IPC is also hiring the current experienced inspectors and re-training them to conduct the same inspections with the technology providing the asset managers the same reporting they are required to submit just much more thorough and much less subjective.
IPC is experiencing considerable growth and is always looking for energetic and experienced engineers and inspectors. In 2016, the firm had only five people on staff with 15 currently on staff and in the process of hiring another six. The company’s current personnel are a good mix of seasoned/expert inspectors and young brilliant engineers on the cutting edge of robotics.
When it comes to hiring new people, Thaler said IPC likes hiring recent, enthusiastic engineering graduates who are passionate about the work we do. “I’ve gotten calls from fellow employees at three in the morning, stating ‘Hey, we just did this.’ They are advancing technology and the way things work and are excited about being able to see the results of their skills and in redeveloping the way things work.”
With regard to senior staff at IPC, Thaler said, “they have the experience to incorporate the technology we have to change the space and the way things are done. To accomplish this, you need experience. You need people who’ve done hundreds of bridge inspections,” he said. “We have personnel who know the intricacies of what to look for when inspecting bridges or high mast light poles. IPC can not only provide quantitative data; we have the expertise,” he added, in conjunction with the technology to interpret that data into actionable items for clients.
Thaler says IPC has been approached by firms and government officials in several countries that want to acquire the team’s technology. IPC would prefer, however, to continue to offer both technology and service in one package.
“We would consider licensing [our technology] under the right situation and are engaging with potential partners in countries around the world,” stated Thaler.
The company does face some challenges in the U.S. Government bureaucracy can be complex and the timeline of infrastructure inspection contracts can put the company in a waiting pattern until a new contract is put out. For example, most bridges are inspected once every two years, high mast light poles every five. Although the DOT has the ability to push the technology to market for immediate use, it takes a special champion within the DOT that wants to see the best practices used within their budgets to help ensure the safety of the public.
As for the future, “I think in very short order, we are going to create strategic relationships that are not only national but worldwide that are not only going to help us with the transportation infrastructure space but are going to help us in all types of areas including water control structure, railroads, airports and building inspections. Our next logical step, after bridges and high mast light poles, are water control structures—dams, levees, ports. All have the same issue of ageing and our technology is easily converted for other uses,” Thaler said.
IPC also sees post-construction analysis is another potential growth market. “Let’s say you have a contractor who’s supposed to pour five inches of concrete,” he said. “How do you know he really poured five inches of concrete? We can do a post-construction analysis, and we can tell you how much rebar is in there, as well as how much concrete is in there. We also have the capacity to do building inspections in earthquake-prone areas.” Once you have a baseline, future inspections can easily show deterioration over time.
In five years, “I think we’ll be in multiple markets in multiple countries and developing other new technologies. This morning, I was at a meeting with a major university that wants to help us advance some of the technologies that we’re using. We’d like to help with education, create curriculums to help future PhDs and engineers learn about robotics,” said Thaler. “Outside of wanting to grow the company as big as we can, we’re conducting these services to protect the public and keep infrastructure moving.”
While IPC has a website, Thaler said the company’s best promotion stems “primarily with the relationships we have at the government level of infrastructure. If a transportation official likes IPC’s services, they will encourage others to use the firm’s technology,” he said. Even with the advanced technology, the infrastructure inspection industry has long standing relationships with their vendors that creates a headwind for IPC. The current government billing methods also are not set up to encourage the promotion of new technologies through the current asset managers or engineering firms, which puts IPC is a waiting posture until the new contract comes out.
“Within five years, I believe that robotic solutions will be the only way infrastructure inspections are conducted. With the infrastructure being in the shape that it is in and budgets what they are, updating inspection methods is critical to maintaining and improving our infrastructure. How do you know what to maintain and what can potentially fail if you cannot make accurate assessments? Outside of wanting to grow the company, our goal is to educate and protect the public in addition to providing asset managers worldwide with real quantitative data that reflects the current condition of their infrastructures.”