Finding the cracks with new drone technology

Posted by Derek Mason

14th September 2021

Picture credit: Ian Baldwin on Unsplash

Day-to-day when I’m working on site, there are sometimes risks but nothing like the ones that structural engineers might face when reviewing a building that’s taken the full impact of a hurricane or flood.

Inspecting infrastructure and buildings after a catastrophic event is a vital part of keeping people safe. But there isn’t generally a team of structural engineers on standby, ready to swoop in and decide whether a critical bridge should remain open.

This is where artificial intelligence comes into its own. Associate Professor Mostafa Tazarv from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Dakota State University explains, “Trained inspectors need to decide whether to keep a bridge open, to restrict traffic to first responders only, or to close it – and this must happen within a short time”.

Dr Tazarv researches the structural behaviour of buildings and bridges during catastrophic events, including earthquakes. On top of this, he leads the Sustainable and Resilient Civil Infrastructure (SARCI) research group.

The artificial intelligence software he’s developing alongside SARCI member, assistant professor Kwanghee Won from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will scan for and pinpoint cracks and damage to supporting columns and other structural elements.

This AI software will potentially transform post-disaster inspections – saving time and money and possibly saving lives too.

The software takes a visual scan of infrastructure so that someone without structural expertise can conduct the survey, before sending the images to engineers and other specialists to help determine whether the structure is safe.

The software could be integrated into a mobile app or loaded onto a drone or fleet of drones to speed up inspections and locate cracks and other signs of weakness.

Right now, it’s early days, and the focus is on developing the software’s ability to scan and assess bridge columns before moving onto other bridge components and eventually other structures.

My thoughts are that while this sounds innovative, it may be pretty challenging to implement, especially if there is debris and also blockages to contend with. For example, getting access to a bridge when other buildings may have collapsed could be a problem.

It might be that small, snake-like robots are a practical way to access critical points in a building or infrastructure to assess the damage. Following the lead of search and rescue teams could be one approach that helps speed up the development of this technology.

Using untrained people to conduct surveys may not be entirely practical. For drones, people will need to be trained to fly them in a specific pattern to pick up the visuals an engineer needs to make their assessment. And all of this only generally applies to structures that are built to withstand earthquakes and tremors. Structures that haven’t been designed with earthquakes in mind are likely to be mangled wrecks!

Luckily, earthquakes are not something we generally have to contend with in the UK, although flooding is becoming more common. This technology may well be useful to us in certain situations, so I’ll be keeping an eye on this area of research.

Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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