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A Glaring Technology Gap

With Congress focused on bridge inspections, it might ask why the best inspection tools aren’t deployed.
September 7, 2007

At a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee earlier this week–a month after the I-35 Minneapolis bridge collapse killed 13 people–Calvin L. Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, chided the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). Scovel said the FHA needed to prioritize bridge inspections in terms of failure risk and make sure its engineers are spending sufficient time inspecting the structures.

But how well equipped are those inspectors? For answers, Scovel might do well to read this blog, by MIT civil engineer Oral Buyukozturk. Buyukozturk points out that today, many inspectors carry out their duties by pinging bridges with a hammer, or just looking at them with the naked eye. Meanwhile, far better tests–like acoustic and radar tests that peer beneath a concrete surface for evidence of decay–are well advanced but little used. At this moment of crisis, Buyukozturk notes, “the high-tech, nondestructive tools presently available for infrastructure inspection have not been embraced by the construction industry for widespread and systematic use.” Given that more than 70,000 U.S. bridges are rated “structurally deficient,” this inspection-technology gap might be good fodder for future hearings.

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