By Abe Danaher | May 29, 2019
Paul Ziehl, the associate dean for research at the University of South Carolina College of Engineering and Computing, is the principal investigator on a research project that is using drones and robots to help identify a more efficient, cost-effective method to assist the South Carolina Department of Transportation in assessing the state’s 9,401 bridges.
“We are looking at evolving methods to help SCDOT achieve a better picture of the structural health of the state’s bridges and to help bridge inspectors do their jobs faster, more safely and with results that are as good as can be achieved through current bridge inspection practices,” he says.
For the project, Ziehl is working closely with Tommy Cousins and Brandon Ross from Clemson University’s College of Engineering, Computing, and Applied Science. Ziehl is focusing on how aerial drones can better assess bridges above water, while Cousins and Ross are focusing on culverts and how to best assess bridge scour beneath the water’s surface. To do so, they have enlisted the help of UofSC Assistant Professor Ioannis Rekleitis and his autonomous robotic boats called jetyaks.
“I view this as us being the Consumer Report testers for the SCDOT,” Ross says. “We are going out, trying new technologies and finding their pros, cons, limits and benefits.”
Ziehl believes that once this project is completed in June of 2020, its findings will be immediately implemented to assist SCDOT with post-natural disaster assessments and to assist with load-testing of the state’s bridges. He says, “There will be some areas where it will be implemented as a scanning tool. For instance, after a hurricane or a flood to see if a bridge has been displaced or otherwise damaged.”
Aerial drones and other systems will likely supplement bridge inspections conducted by trained personnel, rather than replacing them.
In just the first year and a half of the project, Ziehl’s team has conducted laboratory testing, assessed the most effective technologies, begun field testing on local bridges in Lexington and modified the scope of the project to include load-testing. Future steps for the project include developing machine learning algorithms for different technologies and creating a cost-benefit analysis comparing their technology to current assessment methods.
South Carolina is not the first state to consider the benefits of using drone and robotic assessments. However, Ziehl believes, South Carolina is in a unique position because of its many bridges and the recent influx of manufacturing into the state. “Consequently,” he says, “the number of bridges that need to be inspected and rated drives these types of automated force multiplying technologies.”
Ross says that the importance of the project is what drew the two colleges together. He says, “When else do you have Clemson and USC working together like this? This is a big deal for everybody in South Carolina and just isn’t a time for us to draw a line in the turf.”