Structure Load Utopia

Infrastructure Sensors Hold Promise for Heavy Hauls

By Lori Musser

Big data and transportation technology have enhanced almost every aspect of the supply chain, so finding a safe and efficient routing to move an overweight transformer a few hundred miles inland should be easy, shouldn’t it?

Sensors, data collectors and other advanced technology are inexpensive and readily available to incorporate into bridge and roadway structures. In existing applications, infrastructure owners and developers have realized benefits ranging from lower costs of construction to earlier resumption of use after a disaster to justified deferral of repairs.

So far, however, the use of sensor technology is so rare that cargo shippers haven’t benefited in any meaningful way.

For the heavy-haul and project forwarding industry, a future when they could tap into a cloud-connected database and quickly calculate the most efficient routing, best axle configuration, and safest timing for their load might seem like a dreamland. Given enough time, this utopia may well become a reality, but patience will be needed.

The thing is, according to Kumar Allady, CEO of Florida-based Smart Structures, the new technology is not just incremental, it is disruptive, and disruptive technology is slower to be adopted.

Smart Structures advocates embedding technology in infrastructure, in a cradle-to-grave approach. Allady said to Breakbulk: “Embedded data collectors can impact infrastructure planning, design, construction and O&M positively, but the construction element bears the burden of cost. For a bridge or infrastructure owner with a holistic approach, this may not be an issue because the bottom line will improve. But, for each stage in project development there will be disruption and a redistribution of costs, workload and savings.” Allady said the savings from using his patented technology throughout a project’s life cycle are measurable, with a return on investment that exceeded 3:1 in a recent piling application.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ Technology Implementation Group, or TIG, reports that embedded data collectors, or EDCs, are now in use by transportation agencies in Virginia, Minnesota, Florida and North Carolina in the U.S. TIG even has a team designated to help “deliver the benefits of EDC.”

Actionable Bridge Data

Peter Vanderzee is CEO of Georgia-based LifeSpan Technologies. The company delivers “objective, actionable information so that bridge owners can safely derive the lowest life-cycle cost from their assets.” Sensors installed anytime during a bridge or other structure’s life cycle can provide condition assessment solutions to support difficult decisions involving structural maintenance-repair-replacement, rather than relying solely on subjective visual-inspection data.

Steven Todd, vice president of the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association, commented to Breakbulk that sensors attached to exterior steel or concrete surfaces on bridges have proven to be highly valuable, particularly in safely extending the useful life of bridges. “Data captured will help owners understand actual condition, lower the risks of ownership, and allow load restrictions to be removed,” he said. Todd has been advised by industry that there is a 75 percent probability of restrictions being removed after a load test with sensors.

When asked about other uses of sensors, Todd described accelerometer-sensor technology for specialized carriers: “It has been embedded with cargo to track vibrations and displacements of the shipment, allowing the shipper to verify nothing deleterious happens.”

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, advocates that bridge load testing should be technology-based rather than performed by subjective visual assessment. He said better decisions would be made so bridges would be less likely to be unnecessarily load posted, and infrastructure funds could be better directed where truly needed.

However, while sensors have proven beneficial, most U.S. state transport departments have not yet considered their usefulness in helping to set load limits or helping to optimize routing for heavy hauls or other permitted movements. Further, the fragmentation of road and bridge ownership and maintenance in the U.S. makes the introduction of sensor technology more difficult. Last-mile deliveries, especially for project cargo, often cross smaller and load-restricted bridges owned by localities with limited budgets, points out Vanderzee.

Sensors are available, the data (on vibrations, temperature, corrosion, ice, strength, strain, and so on), can be collected and analyzed, and the results can be incorporated into automatic permit routing software, but that is still in the future.

A Daily Struggle

In the out-of-gauge world, obtaining bridge data to access routings is a daily struggle. Diana Davila, project director, UTC Overseas Inc., said if sensor technology were eventually instituted nationwide to assist with route planning and permitting, it would be a dream come true.

“Every day we hear of issues with equipment hitting bridges. Having live data would be awesome,” said Davila, adding a real-time information feed into truckers’ mapping devices would greatly help safety.

For route planning and budgeting, cloud-connected sensors could reduce time and manpower used in acquiring data. Once a contract is awarded and data re-evaluated, there would be similar savings. At the permitting stage, if transport departments had accurate information and technology to reconfirm information quickly, permit turnaround time would improve.

At the transportation stage, with accurate information, transit times could be minimized. “Sometimes, extra-long routes are given for transit due to outdated or unconfirmed data of a bridge or another infrastructure,” Davila said.

Some types of information that would be useful for heavy hauls, Davila noted, might include bridge clearances over land or water (height by lane, and by bridge span segment, and overall), weight capacity of the bridge, and type of bridge. She expressed concern, however, that potential for sensor technology, though possibly very valuable for her industry, will be limited by regional and state transport departments’ acceptance of the data as accurate. And, as with other critical data sources, there could be liability issues related to costs and damages if information proves inaccurate.

The use of sensors would likely increase with more education about the benefits of judiciously using the technology, benefits which include safely deferring major repairs or replacements, assigning proper load ratings, enhancing safety, and more. Once convinced that the benefits are real, a long-term program could be implemented that would “resolve most bridge issues across a state,” Vanderzee noted. However, one possible challenge would be trying to explain to the public that prior bridge-condition and weight-limit assessments were subjective, highly variable, and overly conservative.

But the more widely understood the benefits, the more likely a money-saving, safety enhancing technology will be deployed. The infrastructure sensor industry concurs their technology can enhance transportation safety, improve supply chain competitiveness, reduce pollution, and help prioritize infrastructure refurbishment and replacement.

Smart Structures’ Allady summarizes that, although it is still early days, the technology is proven, and its predictive powers are already bringing benefits. There is great promise that, once adopted more widely, infrastructure life-cycle monitoring will provide the kind of information needed to determine safe bridge load limits along a routing, helping forwarders and truckers calculate how to configure their loads and direct their cargo efficiently. 

Based in the U.S., Lori Musser is a veteran shipping industry writer.

Image credit: Shutterstock and Mark Clubb