Chen is leading a research effort at Missouri University of Science and Technology to see how new technology can streamline and improve bridge inspections and maintenance.
He envisions a future when flying drones with robotic arms could quickly survey hard-to-access bridge inspection points. Or wall-climbing machines could scrutinize vertical bridge surfaces. Such a change could make inspections quicker, easier and less costly.
“The cost is a totally different order of magnitude,” said Chen. “There is a significant benefit by cutting down the time using new technology.”
Federal transportation leaders see promise in the idea. In late 2016, the federal government announced that Missouri University of Science and Technology would become a University Transportation Center. The designation comes with $1.4 million in annual research funding for the next five years.
With funding secured, Chen has assembled a team of 18 researchers from six universities to help revolutionize bridge inspection and maintenance work.
It’s a multifaceted project. While some researchers are studying drones and robotic arms, others are exploring how advanced cameras might be able to peer inside bridges and see hidden defects. Another idea involves using “smart rocks” that can detect whether erosion and scouring are destabilizing the soil around the bridge.
Chen said these technologies could greatly change the jobs done by bridge inspectors. Most important, they would take inspectors out of harm’s way. No longer would inspectors need to use bucket trucks to get close to the undersides of bridges. They also wouldn’t have to climb the cables of suspension bridges. In most cases, robots could get a close-up view while the inspector stays safely grounded.
Using robots could also allow inspectors to become more specialized — focusing on certain aspects of bridge wear and tear. Chen said this could increase productivity.
“If this technology was available today, we could inspect five to 10 bridges a day instead of one bridge,” he said.
With robotic assistance, bridge deterioration measurements could also become more standardized and consistent compared with human observations. The data the robots gather would then inform engineers about what maintenance should be done to keep bridges sturdy and safe.
“The decision process, obviously, has to rely on bridge engineers,” Chen said. “The machine cannot make a decision. The engineer will make a decision.”
The research seems particularly applicable in Missouri. The state’s many hills, rivers and streams require lots of bridges, each of which needs regular inspections. With limited transportation funding available, Missouri could benefit from new advances that make inspection less costly.
However, even if the researchers demonstrate that robot-aided inspection is a definite step forward, they will still have to convince federal regulators to agree with their findings. Some federal rules currently require humans to be in close proximity to bridge surfaces and even touch them as part of some inspections.
However, if the research is successful, Chen hopes the results will prompt a change in thinking.
“Once we demonstrate that with a robotic hand we can do a lot, reach to more areas more frequently and gather more reliable data, we can initiate the conversation with the DOT or federal highway leaders to see if this is something they can waive for certain conditions,” he said.