You are on page 1of 8

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.

© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

NDE of Steel Bridges: Fatigue Crack Detection and Monitoring

Pranaam Haldipur1 and Frank Jalinoos2
Engineering and Software Consultants, Inc., Federal Highway Administration

Federal Highway Administration


FHWA NDE Center, 6300 Georgetown Pike, McLean, VA 22101, USA


Steel bridges are subjected to cyclic loading during their service life. Fatigue cracks initiate in steel bridge
components due to this cyclic pattern of loading. The detection and monitoring of these fatigue cracks is an
important task for the bridge owner to evaluate bridge condition. This paper presents preliminary work on the
application of NDE technologies to address both the crack detection and monitoring aspects on in-service steel
bridge structures. NDE technologies have been developed and tailor made to meet the requirements of defence and
aerospace sectors. Over the last several decades, many of these advanced sensing and monitoring technologies have
been used for infrastructure applications. However, there is a need to understand the challenges and the differences
in the dynamics and structural aspects in the civil infrastructure sector to use these advanced NDE technologies.
The Steel Bridge Testing Program (SBTP) carried out by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is aimed
at addressing these challenges in application of advanced NDE crack detection and monitoring technologies. This
paper provides the details of this on-going research effort in the second phase of the SBTP program, carried out in
the field on four bridges in the states of Maryland, Virginia and Florida.

Cracks in metallic structures that initiate and grow under the application of repeated stresses are termed fatigue
cracks and the growth of these fatigue cracks is typically over time. The crack development or initiation stage is very
short in welded components. Bridge details are often subjected to a large number of small amplitude stress cycles,
high-cycle fatigue becomes an important design criterion that is well recognized by the bridge engineers. Federal
requirements mandate the inspection of bridges regularly for fatigue cracks. These inspections are carried out by
the bridge owners every two years and are termed routine inspections. Additional in-depth inspections may follow
the identification of defects that are deemed to be critical to the steel bridge component. The routine inspections
are typically visual inspections. Visual inspection does not necessarily imply detection due to a number of factors
including the inspector’s experience and the physically inherent limitations of the method.

Routine bridge inspections rely heavily on visual assessments. While some bridge owners have started using more
advanced NDE technologies, but the usage of these technologies has been limited. The capability of these advanced
systems depends on the operator’s experience, the inspection conditions, the condition of the inspected surface, the
nature of the crack (surface or sub-surface), etc. Therefore, an existing crack may or may not be detected with a
certain probability. Larger cracks are often detected by even the most inexperienced operators, while smaller cracks
may be missed altogether.

The first phase of the SBTP program was focused on evaluation of NDE technologies to detect and monitor fatigue
cracks in laboratory specimens [1]. In the Phase I, the main criteria for evaluating crack detection technology was
to establish the capability of NDE technologies to detect cracks of different sizes, accurately sizing the cracks and
comparing them to fabrication specifications of the engineered cracks and to determine the state of a fatigue crack
(active/inactive). In the Phase II of the SBTP program, NDE technologies are being evaluated in the field on four
representative steel bridges. The challenges in using these advanced NDE technologies to inspect fatigue cracks in
certain bridge details will be addressed in this second phase. The study will provide a better understanding of the
capabilities of the NDE systems in terms of inspection planning, surface preparation, sensor mounting and expertise
required to discern the acquired NDE data in a field environment.

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.
© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

Four steel bridges in the states of VA, MD and FL were selected based on the needs of the research work outlined for
field testing to meet the following criterion:
• Long-term research activities to be carried out at the bridge site without impacting traffic.
• Relatively easy access to flaw locations outlined by routine inspections carried out by bridge owners.
• Safety of the NDE equipment and sensors mounted on the bridge to prevent any vandalism.
• Types and number of cracks on a bridge available to carry out extensive study.
• Regular access to flaw location for monitoring state of the cracks using NDE technologies.
• Availability of power at bridge site to carry out research activities.

Inspection reports on the four bridges provided by the bridge owners have been used to outline the plan for the
various tests to be performed. The preliminary field tests are currently being pursued on NDE test bridge 1. The
bridge is in a relatively remote area, surrounded by farmland and trees. The bridge is subjected to moderately
heavy traffic. In addition, the location is considered to be safe against any acts of vandalism for setting up testing
and monitoring equipment. Digital photos of the NDE test bridge in Figure 1 illustrate the layout and the access
available to spans 1 and 2.

Figure 1: NDE test bridge 1.

NDE Test Bridge 1 is a three-span continuous, straight, steel rolled-beam structure with no skew. The span
lengths are 72 ft 0 in., 90 ft 0 in. and 72 ft 0 in. The superstructure is made of composite construction using shear
connectors, consisting of six 36WF135 rolled beams with welded cover plates, spaced at 7 ft 7 in., and a 7 in. thick
reinforced concrete deck excluding the wearing surface. The end spans have two lines of diaphragms at third points
and the center span has three lines of diaphragms at quarter points across all beams. At the diaphragm-to-beam
connection, the diaphragm channel is welded all around the interface borders to a 6 in. × ½ in. connection plate that
is welded to the web of the steel beam. The connection plate is several inches shorter than the web depth, leaving a

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.
© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

vertical space, or unsupported “web gap”, between each end of the plate and the beam flange. The depth of the “web
gap” varies between approximately 1 in. to 4 in. depending on the super-elevation of the bridge cross section.

Routine inspection carried out by the bridge owner reported the presence of fatigue cracks in most of the “web
gap” areas, initiating from the top of the vertical welds between the connection plate and the beam web. Based on
a consultant report, the cracks on this bridge appear to be caused by distortion-induced fatigue at the unsupported
“web gap” areas where the diaphragm connection plate is not connected to the beam top flange. Based on the
routine inspection reports the bridge owner performed repairs on all the cracked locations by grinding off the welds
that contained the cracks. Inspections carried out a year after the repairs indicate that the ground-out areas still had
cracks. It is uncertain whether the grinding was incomplete or the cracks re-initiated. A schematic of this bridge
along with the crack locations is outlined in Figure 2(a). A subset of these reported cracks have been chosen for
detailed detection and crack monitoring study under the second phase of the SBTP program. Considering the long-
term needs to access these crack locations for detection and monitoring purposes, a suspended scaffolding setup has
been erected, as shown in Figure 2(b) and 2(c). 3.




Figure 2: (a) Schematic showing flaw locations on NDE Test Bridge 1,

(b) and (c) suspended scaffold setup to access the flaw locations.


Based on the tests carried out in laboratory environment in the Phase I of the SBTP program, five advanced NDE
technologies are being evaluated in the field in the second phase of this program. The NDE technologies have been
categorized as follows:
• Crack detection technologies comprising of phased array ultrasonic testing (PAUT), conventional eddy current
point probes and meandering winding magnetometer (MWM) array eddy current testing.
• Crack monitoring technologies comprising of acoustic emission (AE) and electrochemical fatigue sensors (EFS).

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.
© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

Phased Array Ultrasonic Testing (PAUT)

Ultrasonic testing is based on the principle of introducing acoustic energy into a test specimen and analyzing how
this energy propagates through the specimen. When the acoustic wave impinges on a discontinuity (such as a crack,
porosity or inclusion) part of the acoustic energy is reflected. Analysis of this reflected waveform provides an
indication of the presence of the defect and can provide information on the geometry of the defect. PAUT uses an
array of individual ultrasonic transducer elements where the excitation of the elements can be individually controlled
to electronically steer or focus the ultrasonic beam. The beam movement depends on the probe geometry and time
multiplexing of the individual transducer elements. By precisely controlling the time delay between the probe
elements, beams of various angles, focal distance, and focal spot size can be produced.

The geometry of a weld determines the ultrasonic inspection angles that are required [2]. One of the main
advantages of phased array technology over the conventional ultrasonic systems is the output can be in the form
of a sectorial scan. The sectorial scan enables the inspection angle to be varied and tailored to the weld geometry
and is particularly useful for inspections with restricted access. A typical sectorial scan involves a stationary probe,
where the beam is made to sweep through a range of angles. The composite scan image produced allows instant
visualisation of any discontinuities detected. However, based on experience during the first phase of laboratory
testing, it is important to keep in mind that a sectorial scan from a stationary probe will not detect all discontinuities
that exist within its sweep range. The angle of incidence of the ultrasound beam on the discontinuity will influence
the ability of the system to detect flaws that are not oriented at favourable detection angles and mechanical scanning
can overcome this issue. A representative PAUT system shown in Figure 3 is being used for field tests.

Figure 3: Phased array ultrasonic testing system.

MWM-Array Eddy Current System

The MWM-array system is an advanced eddy current inspection system. The current configuration of the system is
that of a prototypical unit and is not well designed for field testing. However, the underlying principles governing
the detection approach have shown promise during the Phase I laboratory tests. The MWM array is an eddy current
probe but differs from a conventional eddy current probe in the configuration of its primary and secondary windings.
They meander back and forth in a rectangular pattern so as to enable the construction of a simple analytical model that
allows sensor lift-off variations to be decoupled from actual other parameters to be measured. The MWM array is a
thin and conformable sensor that incorporates both eddy current type sensing and magnetic induction sensing methods
to measure both conducting and magnetic properties of nonferrous and ferrous metals by using model-based inverse
methods. MWM-array operates in the quasistatic mode. Magneto-quasistatics is defined as the regime within which the
wavelength of traveling waves is significantly longer than the characteristic dimensions of the sensor, coatings/process
affected zone, lift-off or other system dimensions. The grid measurement approach used by the system is a model-based
technique used to measure two properties independently, at a single frequency (e.g., magnetic permeability and
conductivity, or conductivity and lift-off, where lift-off is the distance from the sensor to the component surface).
The MWM sensor response can be detected and analyzed with the grid measurement algorithms that are used in the
high-frequency MWM-array software to convert the sensor impedance magnitude and phase measurements directly
into estimates of material properties, such as electrical conductivity and magnetic permeability [3]. A 37-channel
impedance instrument with a 37 channel probe electronics unit and a high-frequency MWM-array FA28 is being used
for field testing. A schematic of the MWM-array system is shown in Figure 4.

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.
© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

Figure 4: Schematic of the MWM–array system and digital photo of the MWM-array system.

Acoustic Emission (AE)

Acoustic emission (AE) monitoring is a nondestructive technique for the detection, location, and monitoring of
fatigue cracks. AE sensors can indicate the rate at which fatigue cracks are likely to develop. Acoustic emissions
are essentially elastic stress waves that are generated by a rapid release of energy from a localized source within
a stressed material. This can be attributed to changes in micro-structural characteristics of the material and can
be detected by AE sensors. Sources of acoustic emission are defect related processes such as crack extension and
plasticity of material in the highly stressed zone adjacent to the crack tip [4]. The Sensor Highway II Smart Remote
(SH-II-SRM) with 12 sensors is being setup on the NDE Test Bridge 1 to monitor the state of existing cracks. The
system is being powered by a 130 watt 12 volt solar panel setup at the bridge. The system consists of 16 high-speed
channels and 8 standard parametric input channels. The system is designed for unattended and remote monitoring
by using a cellular modem for data communication. The wireless data communication is being setup to connect to a
server located at the FHWA NDE Center, shown in Figure 5.

Electrochemical Fatigue Sensor (EFS)

The EFS system developed by MATECH Corp. is a nondestructive fatigue crack inspection system for detecting the
state of fatigue cracks in dynamically loaded steel structures [5]. The EFS system uses two sensors, one for reference
(R) the other as the crack measurement (CM) sensor. Both sensors are installed near the location of interest. The
CM sensor is specifically located with the center of the sensor over the crack tip, whereas the R sensor is located a
short distance away from the CM sensor where a crack is not probable. Using signal processing, the two signals are
compared to determine if a crack is present. Based on the manufacturer guidelines, when the energy ratio between
the two signals is found to be greater than 2.0, a growing crack is indicated. An energy ratio below the level of 1.57
generally indicates that there is no micro-plasticity or crack growth activity. The transition from the micro-plasticity
to the potential occurrence of an active growing crack in the steel member is predicted quantitatively by energy
ratios in the range of 1.57-1.94. This situation indicates an elevated risk for future crack initiation in the inspection
area and therefore continued monitoring of that particular location should be done.

A schematic illustration of the EFS system is shown in Figure 6.

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.
© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

Figure 5: AE data acquisition and analysis setup at a NDE test bridge site.

Figure 6: EFS Data acquisition system.

The NDE test bridge 1 is being used as pilot bridge for the field testing under the second phase of the SBTP
program. Research efforts have been implemented to setup the various NDE technologies at this test bridge. The
preliminary tests carried out at this structure include visual, magnetic particle inspection, conventional eddy current,
MWM-array, and EFS testing. The AE system is currently being setup and data acquisition will begin shortly in the
future. Additional phased array ultrasonic testing and MWM-array system testing will also be conducted for all flaw
locations. Routine bridge inspections start with visual inspections, which is by far the most common nondestructive
testing technique. All visual inspections were carried out by NDE Center personnel at arm’s-length inspection
distances. The visual inspections were followed by magnetic particle testing. This involved surface preparation, to
remove the bridge paint at the inspection location, so as to avoid any false indications of a crack due to corrosion of
the paint surface or non-bonding of bridge paint. Figure 7(a) and Figure 7(d) show an example of visual inspection
using a photo at the flaw locations NG1-S2-ED3 and NG1-S2-WD3 and this was followed by magnetic particle
inspection shown in Figure 7(b) and 7(e). Figure 7(c) and 7(f) shows a magnified version of the photo to illustrate
the fatigue crack detected at these locations. It was observed that at all flaw locations (noted by the bridge owner’s
inspection report), there were indications of a fatigue crack of varying lengths. The fatigue cracks typically
originated in the web gap areas, at the top of the vertical welds of the connection plate and the girder web.

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.
© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

(a) (b)

(c) (d)

(e) (f)

Figure 7: (a)(d) Visual inspection of flaw locations, (b)(e) surface preparation for magnetic particle testing
and (c)(f) magnified photos of fatigue cracks.

Based on the results from visual and magnetic particle inspection, three flaw locations were selected for preliminary
EFS tests. The EFS sensors were mounted at the flaw location in accordance with the manufacturer guidelines. The
surface was cleaned and all the paint, rust and other debris were removed from the inspection locations. The tip of
the fatigue crack was marked based on the magnetic particle inspection and the crack measurement (CM) sensor
was mounted with the center of the sensor over the crack tip. A reference sensor (R) was mounted next to the CM
sensor along the direction of propagation of the fatigue crack. The electrolyte was inserted in the EFS sensors and it
was ensured that there was no leakage of the electrolyte from the sensors. The tests were setup to acquire data for a
period of 2 h using six 20-min data sets. The ambient temperature was noted to be 51 °F and the temperature of the
steel was 45 °F. An example of the EFS sensor mounting at one of the flaw locations (NG4-S2-ED2) is shown in
Figure 8. After acquiring the data, each data set was analyzed using the EFS Analyzer software to determine crack
growth activity. The software consists of time and frequency domain based algorithms that screens for the largest
differences in the CM and R sensor to determine the energy ratios. An example of the time and frequency domain
output from the EFS analyzer is shown in Figure 9. All the data sets from each location were examined and it was
found that at each of the three locations tested using the EFS system, the energy ratios were above 2.0 indicating that
the cracks at all of the three locations were growing cracks.


This paper outlines the on-going research and demonstration efforts currently in progress on four bridge sites. The
preliminary setup and tests are currently being pursued at the first test bridge. Efforts to detect and monitor fatigue
cracks by using complimentary NDE techniques will be carried out in the near future at all the bridge sites selected
in the second phase of the SBTP program. Long-term monitoring of fatigue cracks with acoustic emission (AE) and

NDE/NDT for Highways and Bridges: Structural Materials Technology (SMT) [New York, NY, August 2010]: pp 435-442.
© Copyright 2010, 2011, American Society for Nondestructive Testing, Columbus, OH.

regular inspections with the EFS system will be pursued. Phased array ultrasonic testing and eddy current testing
will be used to determine the accuracy of the AE and EFS systems. Procedures to use and interpret the acquired
NDE data will be developed as a part of this testing program. The advantages and shortcomings of each method will
be outlined as a part of this research effort.

Figure 8: Typical EFS setup at a flaw location.

Figure 9: Time and frequency domain output.

The authors would also like to thank the NDE Center technicians Richard Hale, Blake Cox and consultant Richard

1. H aldipur P. and F. Jalinoos, “Detection and Characterization of Fatigue Cracks in Steel Bridges,” Structural
Material Testing SMT Conference, LaGuardia NY, (In Print). 2010.
2. Mac Donald, D., “Development and qualification of procedures for rapid inspection of piping welds.” Proc. 3rd
EPRI phased array seminar- Seattle, USA. 2003.
3. Goldfine, Neil J., and David Clark, “Introduction to the Meandering Winding Magnetometer (MWM) and the
grid measurement approach,” Proc., SPIE, Vol 2944, 186-193. 1996.
4. Cole, Phil and Jon Watson, “Remote structural health monitoring using acoustic emission,” Middle East
Nondestructive Testing Conference & Exhibition, Bahrain. 2005.
5. Li, Y. and C. Laird, “Development of the electrochemical fatigue sensor,” Proc., International Fatigue
Congress, Vol III. 1996.