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America’s Bridge Infrastructure Crisis

- Bridge Structural Health Monitoring and Automated Deterioration Detection
All bridges are subjected to the destructive effects of material aging. Metal fatigue,
corrosion of steel components, increasing traffic volume, and traffic overloading occur regularly
on America’s highway bridges. These factors, in conjunction with possible accidents or
miscalculations made during the construction or design processes, can result in the unanticipated
diminishing of a bridge’s strength and load carrying capacity.
The condition of heavily used, urban bridges declines every year. The average age of a
federal highway bridge is 45 years (American Society of Civil Engineers). According to the
Federal Highway Administration, there are 72,868 structurally deficient and 89,024 functionally
obsolete bridges in the United States. These account for over one-fourth of the nation’s entire
highway bridge inventory. 7,980 of these bridges have been deemed both structurally deficient
and fracture critical (Lai 2009, 2). It is difficult to properly evaluate the structural integrity of
bridges under current traffic conditions, which makes it difficult to identify the spans that require
replacement or retrofitting with new structural members.
Since 1989, there have been nearly 600 bridge failures in the country (Lai 2009, 1).
Structural bridge failures occur far too often. Recent incidents such as the I-5 Washington and I-
35W Mississippi River bridge collapses emphasize a long-standing national problem: how years
of neglect, underfunding, and lack of leadership have caused the nation’s bridge infrastructure to
It is apparent that many of America’s highway bridges require strengthening or
replacement, but sufficient funding is unavailable for the required construction. It would cost
over an estimated $140 billion to replace the entire supply of structurally deficient and
functionally obsolete bridges in the United States (LePartner 2010). This figure will only
increase as additional bridges continually age past their design-recommended maximum age.
This hefty and ever increasing price tag is not economically feasible in the short term;
therefore, monitoring a bridge’s structural health is becoming more vital than ever. Among the
many factors leading to unsatisfactory bridge conditions, one often neglected issue is poor
inspection or monitoring practices. Outdated assessment methods currently being utilized are
incapable of detecting all deterioration signs of a bridge. A possible enhancement to the current
standard of every-other-month visual inspections could be the addition of automated, continuous
structural health monitoring systems.
Structural health monitoring (SHM) is a non-destructive, in-situ structural sensing and
evaluation method that uses a variety of sensors embedded in a structure. The sensors constantly
monitor structural responses and characteristics for the purpose of estimating the severity of
damage or deterioration. They evaluate the consequences on the structure in terms of response,
capacity, and service-life (Duygu and Frangopol 2011, 7). The sensors receive a collection of
various types of data that are then analyzed and stored for future reference. These data can be
used to identify the possibility of damage at its onset and can aid in the assessment of the safety,
reliability, and strength of the structure. They can improve the understanding of in-situ structural
behavior, offer assurance of a structure’s strength and serviceability, and improve maintenance
and management strategies.
The purpose of monitoring a bridge with automated SHM systems is to obtain
quantitative data to be used for the evaluation of a bridge’s structural performance in a manner
that visual observations cannot. This will allow for engineers to make more informed decisions
regarding future renovation, maintenance, or repair plans. SHM can increase safety and provide
early warning of any acceleration of degradations that are being monitored.
As state transportation departments come to appreciate the importance of real-time
structural performance monitoring, various companies have started designing and installing
automated SHM systems into small and localized town bridges. SHM has also been implemented
into large highway bridges nationwide in countries such as China and Taiwan.
With recent advances in structural health monitoring and computing technology,
development of intelligent bridge monitoring systems has emerged in America. The objective of
this study should be to synthesize the state-of-the art knowledge available for bridge SHM for
the purposes of demonstrating and validating that the technology is worthy of significant
investment. The study should determine if the implementation of automated corrosion-detection
and diagnosis systems would be a practical and effective means to improve the current safety and
state of American bridge infrastructure.
Each of the many SHM systems in development is unique in its operation, the type of
data it provides, what it tests for, etc. This study should help simplify the process of selecting the
best available systems based on their capabilities as they compare the needs of specific bridges.
It should categorize the SHM products in terms of their functions, as there are some that
specialize in particular types of bridges, whereas others claim to be more customizable and
complete systems that can be tailored to any bridge.
Despite the abundance of SHM products in development, detailed literature on the
systems’ performances, monitoring results, and how they have assisted bridge owners is not
readily available. The study should identify and reveal the most useful data and information to be
collected and use the data to fill in those gaps of missing information. It should identify the types
of bridges and structural components where enhanced monitoring would make the greatest
The study should also include a cost analysis of SHM. It should compare the cost and
benefits of implementing the automated systems into all aging bridges with the cost and benefits
of replacing or repairing them all at once.
As it stands today, there are thousands of bridges nationwide that pose a danger to the
public. These spans require replacement and repairs that cannot be completed nor afforded in the
short-term but are scheduled and budgeted for within the next six to ten years (Curtis 2013). This
study must verify that the implementation of these automated SHM systems can complement the
current bridge inspection process adequately enough to ensure the safety of the public until it
comes time for the bridges’ full replacements.
The main question for this study is concerned with whether or not automated SHM
systems are the answer to America’s largest bridge infrastructure problem: safety. Will the
implementation of automated and continuously operating structural health monitoring systems
make a sufficient impact to the inspection process to ensure bridge safety? With these SHM
systems in place, can bridges sustain so that retrofitting of new structural components or
complete bridge replacement is no longer immediately necessary and can be delayed until
sufficient funding is available? In order to answer these questions, questions regarding the exact
specifications and technology behind the devices must be answered.
The details of the installation and operation processes must be uncovered to ensure that
the implementation can be carried out in an efficient manner and will avoid additional problems
or inconveniences to a bridge. Will installation require reconstruction or modifications to the
bridge’s structure? Could this cause a reduction in the structural integrity of the bridge? Will
traffic lanes require shut-down phases during the installation or data collection processes? Will it
require a team of workers to install these systems? Once the systems are installed, do they
require an inspector to be onsite with them at all times? Can the sensors be left alone to collect
data, or will they require frequent maintenance and realignments? Can the received data be
transferred remotely, or do they require an inspector to be onsite for their collection? What
would be the electricity fee from leaving the sensors in operation at all times? Depending on the
price tag and required effort for the installation and operation processes, it may be apparent that
SHM will cost more than reconstruction. These questions also aid in the decision regarding the
amount of bridges that should include SHM. If it is discovered that installation and operation is
economical and straightforward, SHM can be incorporated in all bridges; if not, only the most
problematic bridges should be supplied with the systems.
Additional questions should focus on issues of actual performance, reliability, and
effectiveness. Are there any possible challenges for applications in extreme or unusual climates
(i.e. the effects that weather will have on these systems)? Could natural phenomenon such as
earthquakes, snow, thunderstorms, or heavy winds alter the readings on the sensors? Will this
affect the readings of the sensors and cause errors? Do they have trouble detecting a specific
structural problem or problems on a specific type of bridge? Do these sensors have an expiration
or recommended replacement date? It must first be established whether or not the technology
behind the sensors is sufficient and reliable to warrant heavy investment.
The research should consist of three parts: a literature review; telephone interviews and
surveys; and field observations. The investigation should provide answers to all of the above
questions in order to discover everything possible about these SHM systems.
A comprehensive literature review to identify the state-of-the-art technologies presently
available in bridge health monitoring and condition assessment should be performed initially.
This investigation should synthesize the most suitable knowledge, technology, hardware, and
software for potential applications. It should obtain, review, and analyze all available
information regarding the current technology in automated SHM systems. Specification books,
manuals of operation and maintenance, and diagrams of SHM systems should be reviewed and
Based on the information (or lack thereof) uncovered during the literature review, the
next step in the investigation should involve contacting and surveying manufacturers and state
departments of transportation regarding the current status of their bridge monitoring and
condition assessment programs. Questions and surveys should consider the technology available,
past developments, and possible plans for future development. This should provide a good
knowledge of the up-to-date advancement of bridge SHM systems.
Certified bridge inspectors should travel onsite to bridges with SHM systems already in
application. Inspectors should investigate the local and small bridges in the United States as well
as the highway bridges in countries such as China and Taiwan. They should observe the bridges
to see if the sensors are noticeably causing problems or inconveniences for the bridge or its
users. The inspectors should contact the state department of transportation in the area to request
an onsite tour and examination of the monitoring systems to observe how the sensors actually
operate. Inquiries should be conducted to discover how the systems are utilized and how
inspectors of the bridges obtain and analyze the data provided from SHM.
The knowledge and technology reviewed, collected, and studied using the above research
plan should then be synthesized and documented. The reported knowledge and technology must
emphasize the newly developed and most promising technologies available. All observations and
notes of special instances and circumstances should be described in full. Examples of these
observations include: extreme-temperature effects on the accuracy of sensor applications,
reliability of wireless data transmissions, power supply and communication obstacles in remote
areas of the country, etc.
The final report should be segmented into three sections: The first section should
document the current knowledge and recent advancement in structural health monitoring. This
section should include specification sheets on the components of a SHM system, advanced
sensing technologies, different types of SHM methods, etc.
The second section should consist of the compilation of currently available and newly
developed SHM technologies. The information of manufacturers and providers of these
technologies and their products should be discussed. If possible, example projects using the
corresponding technologies should be included and analyzed.
The third section should focus on case studies. Multiple application examples currently in
existence worldwide should be presented. These cases should illustrate the possibility of
establishing and implementing SHM systems using the current knowledge and technologies for
monitoring purposes. The section should include an analysis of the bridge infrastructure
conditions in these areas and evaluate how SHM has made an impact.
The study will reveal whether or not SHM is sufficient for the upgrading of bridge
inspections, and if so, the research will simplify the selection process for which SHM systems
would be best for each individual bridge in America’s highway bridge inventory. This will make
implementation of bridge SHM systems as immediate and simplified as possible. If the bridge
structural health monitoring systems prove effective, they can provide many benefits to bridge
SHM has the potential to improve the credibility of inspections and subsequent ratings
through less subjective data. The information provided by these computerized systems is entirely
quantitative. SHM does not rely on visual observations and cannot be misconstrued by gut
feelings or lack of care on the part of the inspector as current practice does. This will allow for
more improved data consistency that will enable the development of enhanced decision-making
tools regarding future repairs or actions. Visual inspections could and should still be carried out,
and results provided by SHM compared to those from visual inspections could help to evaluate
existing inspection techniques.
If these systems prove reliable, they could provide early detection and warning of
potential dangers. Constantly operating systems could recognize when structures are approaching
maximum capacity from overloaded traffic or if certain weather and natural phenomena are
rapidly diminishing the structural integrity. In the event that the bridge is losing capacity at an
accelerated rate, the sensors could warn officials to evacuate the bridge before it is too late and
could then issue immediate repairs. The knowledge that automated systems are in place, and the
continuous scrutiny and analysis of the structural integrity of bridges across American highways
could ease the minds of the public who have become worrisome of bridge safety after recent
The sensors could assess long-term performance and aid in the planning process to
optimize repair and inspection schedules. This would allow for more rational maintenance to
make the most of the little funding available for highway and bridge improvements.
The results from the study could encourage revisions to the current American Association
of State Highway and Transpiration Officials standard condition evaluation manuals. Current
visual methods are evidently not sufficient, based on frequent and recent bridge failures.
Research into this new technology could highlight room for improvement.
The SHM systems improve the understanding of in-situ structural behavior, detect
damage at its onset, offer assurance of strength and serviceability, reduce down time, and
improve maintenance and management strategies for better allocation of resources. The aging
highway bridges in America will eventually require replacement, but there are too many to
replace all at once. If these systems are found to be reliable, they could keep the old and
dangerous bridges safe while waiting for government aid to repair and replace them all.

Works Cited:
American Society of Civil Engineers. "2013 Report Card on America's Infrastructure." 2013.
Report Card on America's Infrastructure. Accessed May 10, 2013.

Curtis, Colleen. "What You Need to Know About President Obama's Plan to Improve American
Infrastructure." The White House Blog. March 29, 2013. Accessed May 11, 2013,

Dong, Yongtao. “Bridge Structural Health Monitoring and Deterioration Detection – Synthesis
of Knowledge and Technology.” Journal of Infrastructure Engineering 91, no. 2, (2010):
1 – 150. doi: 309036.

Duygu Saydam and Frangopol, Dan M. “Performance Indicators for Structures and
Infrastructures.” Journal of Structural Engineering 113, no. 7, (2011): 1215 – 1226. doi:
LePartner, Barry B. Too Big to Fall: America's failing infrastructure and the way forward. New
York: Foster Pub., 2010.

Minmao, Liao and Taichiro, Okazaki. “Analysis of Critical Gusset Plates in the Collapsed I-35W
Bridge.” Journal of Structural Engineering 111, no. 12, (2009): 1-10. doi:
Thomasson, Scott. "Encouraging U.S. Infrastructure Investment." Council on Foreign Relations
Press. April 2012. Accessed May 9, 2013.