Scientists Recruited to Help Fix Failing U.S. Infrastructures

By Jean, Grace V. | National Defense, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Scientists Recruited to Help Fix Failing U.S. Infrastructures


Jean, Grace V., National Defense


* The Defense Department often has called on the private sector to help deliver technological solutions to tough military challenges.

Now it's the civilian agencies that are seeking the industry's help in technologies that can monitor the nation's quickly deteriorating civil infrastructure--bridges, highways and water transmission systems.

"We're talking about a $7 trillion problem that's being confronted by every municipality and state in the nation," says Marc Stanley, director of the Technology Innovation Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Under a program sponsored by NIST, managers are seeking sensors that can detect infrastructure fractures and weaknesses, and engineering analysis tools to help prioritize repairs. Stanley believes defense contractors may have potential technologies for these challenging jobs.

For all the billions of dollars that have been spent in the maintenance and repair of the nation's complex networks of highways and water infrastructure, the technologies that engineers and inspectors employ to examine the concrete and metal are astonishingly obsolete.

The most popular method is to conduct a visual inspection of the infrastructure. But considering there are four million miles of public roadways, one million miles of water mains and 600,000 bridges, the task is a daunting one, even if a corps of a million inspectors could take on the challenge.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There are currently no cost-effective or field-deployable sensing systems that can gather continuous data to help determine repair and renovation schedules or to provide sufficient warning of impending catastrophic failures, says Stanley. The urgency of the problem was underscored last summer when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed and killed 13 people.

While progress has been made in the development of embedded sensors for new construction, such systems are incompatible with components of the existing infrastructure.

To address the problem, the Technology Innovation Program is running a competition that will provide federal funds to small and medium-sized companies, including institutions of higher education, to develop solutions. Large companies that earn revenues of $1.63 billion or more are ineligible for the funding, but they may participate in a joint venture. Academic organizations may lead projects as long as they partner with at least one small- to medium-sized business. …

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