EDITORIAL: One brain still rules

Machines on bridges could help, but people have power

June 12, 2013

I just started scratching my nail over the black-colored box protruding from the bow of my sailboat.

All other prescriptions were exhausted, so I resorted to magic. The assignment in my eighth-grade math class was to create code for a picture on an Apple desktop computer. This was way before the technology would be referred to by a nickname. It was a rainbow-colored once-bitten piece of fruit that lifted the levels of intrigue, but no one in Mr. Groharing’s class knew the magnitude of this machine that required a black, floppy square to essentially come alive. OK, maybe the pigtailed, know-everything Christa Pohlmann had a clue, but who really cared what she thought? The task at hand was to simply make a picture, and I attacked this homework like it was a threat to my livelihood. And maybe, just maybe I wanted to rub it in the face of Ms. Einstein just once before she unlocked a natural beauty to go with all the home-grown intelligence. But, seriously, enough about her. I went to work, scribbling down lines and lines of Apple code before typing in all of the computer mastery. When the time finally came to hit Enter for the grand unveiling, I was about to chew completely through my No. 2 pencil in anticipation. The screen went from code to black, then to a messy flash of green, and to the final electronic canvas. In a computer-driven instant, I became a mess of flesh.

What was with this out-of-place square? I quickly combed through the list, checked every last number, letter and triangle, and kept on hitting Enter. Still there. Still there. STILL THERE! Was that Christa’s laugh I heard? That’s when I turned to the last resort. A few strokes on the screen did not make a difference, either.

Computer programming has come a long way since the early 1980s—and even robots have their place in the world. In mid-May, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) deployed one to help inspect the safety and structural integrity of concrete bridge decks. In a press release, the FHWA proudly declared “the robotic tool—automated and created in partnership with Rutgers University—combines a number of advanced, customized imaging technologies that give inspectors more accurate information, in real-time, on the bridge deck’s overall health.” The robot’s imaging technologies, similar to an X-ray, allow inspectors to see beyond what can be seen by the human eye without having to penetrate or damage the deck. In the first deployment wave, FHWA is using the tool on 24 bridges in six mid-Atlantic states and Washington, D.C. Over the next five years, the goal is to use the robot on up to 1,000 bridges nationwide. Just to enrich your mind a little more—MIT has developed a steel bridge inspection robot.

For the past three years, we have surveyed our DOT audience on how they keep up with all of the bridge inspections. By all indications, most are managing, so upon learning the news from the FHWA I could not help but think how robots would make the lives of those at the government level easier. I’m not sure how much each unit would cost, but they would have to be accompanied by a team of humans. In other words, the inspection process—in terms of the number of bridges scanned—probably will not be much faster. The accuracy could be vastly improved. However, there is still that flesh-and-blood element. There are still tight budgets. The Minnesota DOT knew about the crippled condition of the I-35W bridge, but for one reason or another it was ignored, passed over. The human brain is still in command here, and when push comes to shove decisions will be made. Some will not have the funds or conscience to conduct the necessary repairs. Of course, as a last resort, they can always turn to magic. I would not recommend anything that involves a fingernail, though. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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