The Future of Infrastructure Inspections

Doug Thaler of Infrastructure Preservation Corporation on using robotic testing technology to improve inspection results.

Robotic Cable Stay Inspection
A robotic cable stay inspection in progress. Photo courtesy of Infrastructure Preservation Corporation.

“It’s not sexy from a government perspective to be repairing bridges,” begins Doug Thaler, President of Clearwater, Florida-based Infrastructure Preservation Corporation. Yet inspecting, maintaining and repairing our nation’s infrastructure is vital to keeping the public safe, especially as our bridges and roadways age and deteriorate. “You have to do nothing but drive around the northeast and you see exposed rebar and nets under bridges that hold falling debris,” adds Thaler.

But despite the importance of infrastructure inspections, the process used for conducting the inspections is often decidedly behind-the-times. Thaler and Infrastructure Preservation Corporation are working to change that, offering non-invasive robotic testing technology that that can detect potential problems earlier and provide more meaningful results. Better yet, the testing can typically be completed without the lane closures and traffic disruptions that aggravate motorists.   

In the following Q&A, Thaler discusses the state of our nation’s infrastructure, and how Infrastructure Preservation Corporation’s technology can help ensure public safety and prevent disasters. 

What does Infrastructure Preservation Corporation do? 

We’re a non-destructive testing and robotic engineering company that specializes in transportation infrastructure inspections. We build robotic devices to inspect specific parts of infrastructure that for the last 40 or 50 years have been inspected visually and manually. 

For example, instead of visually inspecting a bridge deck or approach roadway or dragging a chain and listening to changes in the sound of the road while cars are flying by, we have technology that can peer through the road surface and look at the rebar for delamination and deterioration. And we do it for the same price that the Department of Transportation currently pays for a manual inspection. 

One of the biggest benefits is watching progression over time. When you start at a baseline with a new bridge, with every subsequent inspection you can see any changes so you have plenty of time to make repairs prior to anything happening. And with us, you don’t need lane closures and you don’t need bucket trucks. It reduces the labor hours that it takes to do the inspection. 

We are not a very old company, but we have been out on some major structures like the Charles Arrigoni Bridge and Chesapeake Bay Bridge and every job we do tends to lead to other work.

What is non-destructive testing technology? 

Destructive would be drilling through something. But with non-destructive technology you are not affecting the current state of the object. We can peer through a post tension tendon and find problems. We don’t need to cut through it and then stick a borescope in and look for problems, which exposes it to air and water and further damages the structure. 

Or [with a manual inspection of] suspension cables they actually unwrap the cables and wedge apart the load-bearing steel and look inside visually. Instead of unwrapping the cables in one spot we slide a robot all the way up the cable and find potential issues instead of unwrapping cables and upsetting them. 

In general, what is the state of our dams, bridges and other infrastructure in the U.S.? 

You can look at the last [infrastructure.org] report card and it’s not good. About 30 percent of the bridges are structurally deficient. They are supposed to be inspected every year but not every state sticks to the schedule. Other bridges are supposed to be inspected every two years but based on budget they may or may not do that. 

In my opinion, they need a better understanding of the condition of those assets. They are getting a 30 percent number with manual, subjective inspections. If you really were to inspect the structures and look at the components, how bad are they really? And where can we address the problems earlier on in order to extend their service life safely? 

Why has infrastructure been allowed to deteriorate so much? What are the factors? 

Budgets, as well as increases in traffic and loads and population. But it’s really deferring the budgets that the states apply to their infrastructure. They have certain budgets set aside but budgets get squeezed.

Quite frankly, if they had a better understanding of the structures they would be able to budget better. If you have a complete understanding of the structure, how bad it is and what the progression has been, does the issue need to be attended to or can it wait? You would be able to better budget your maintenance and repairs. 

Right now, doing inspections visually when you see a crack—it’s too late. You are into emergency repairs, you are into overtime, you are into nighttime inspections and nighttime repairs. It’s like a cancer; if you catch the issue early on and you address it you can slow and stop it or reverse it. 

The Florida International University bridge collapse [March 15, 2018]—we don’t know the cause of that—but inspection throughout the process may have helped prevent it. Certainly it makes sense; if you can identify voids and cracks and water intrusion early it’s more likely that you can prevent tragedies.