NIST Calls for Better Technologies to Spot Infrastructure Decay

By Matthew Harwood

The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) has identified the nation's crumbling infrastructure as a critical national need (CNN) and in response has announced it will fund research into new technologies to identify decaying roads, bridges, and water systems.

Such a designation, says a recent NIST white paper, justifies "government attention because the magnitude of the problem is large and societal challenges that need to be overcome are not being sufficiently addressed."

To help businesses, universities, and national laboratories address the problem, NIST's new Technology Innovation Program (TIP) will fund selected research into new inspection and monitoring technologies of infrastructure assets that can prioritize repair and renovation schedules and give forewarning when a catastrophic failure looks near.

The designation comes nearly a year after the I-35 W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which killed 13 people and cost the city nearly $200 million. But as the white paper makes clear, the magnitude of the problem stretches across critical infrastructure sectors, such as transportation systems, utilities, and public facilities.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are 240,000 water main breaks per year, which, when combined with leaks, waste an estimated 6 billion gallons of drinking water. Water main breaks also can lead to microbes contaminating drinking water due to the drop in pressure. Water leakages, says the paper, can undermine structural and roadbed foundations as well as disrupt power grids and telecommunications near the leak.

Deteriorating roadways also present a costly problem. Americans spend $54 billion every year on car repairs due to poor road conditions, estimates the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Last month, Mark Funkhouser, mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, told Congress that the infrastructure decay plaguing cities like his was "a quiet collapse of prosperity."

The new research that NIST hopes to fund will help develop new cost-effective and technologically superior ways of spotting infrastructure degradation before failure occurs. Presently, visual inspections are the most common way of assessing the integrity of infrastructures such as bridges, roads, and water mains. This method, however, doesn't produce results inspectors can be confident of.

In August of 2007, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) concluded that "the condition ratings that the NBIS [National Bridge Inspection Standards] generates are subjective, highly variable, and not sufficiently reliable for optimal bridge management."

Also, by relying on a small supply of trained inspectors to judge an infrastructure asset's fitness, the responsible state departments must grapple with high labor costs and infrequent inspections.

By funding research into new sensing technologies, NIST says it hopes to help the development of tools to issue "timely and accurate alert data on structural integrity," which will also allow a more efficient allocation of resources by avoiding premature replacement and repairs while concentrating on those structures that need immediate attention.

NIST expects to award $9 million dollars this year to research and development of such sensing technologies.

NIST says its assistance is necessary because state and local governments "do not have the funds and ability to develop more cost-effective advanced sensing tools that would eliminate ... knowledge gaps [in infrastructure integrity]."





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