How new technologies can support America’s aging infrastructure
By Claire Rutkowski, Bentley Systems, Senior vice president and CIO Champion.
From roads and rail networks to power grids and ports, infrastructure in the United States underpins its $20 trillion economy. The sad reality is that many of these networks and systems are past their useful life, and delays and soaring maintenance costs are hindering economic performance.
Aging infrastructure is a global problem. But in America, it is a crisis. Take our nation’s bridges—the backlog of bridge repairs is estimated at $125 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. At the current rate, it will be 2071 before all necessary repairs are made and that doesn’t include the wear and tear in the intervening years. More not-so-fun facts: 43% of public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition, a water main breaks every two minutes with a daily estimated loss of 6 billion gallons of treated water every single day, and 10,000 of the 40,000 miles of U.S. levees are undocumented. No matter where you turn, the condition and performance of American infrastructure are deteriorating at an alarming rate. On the world stage, the U.S. doesn’t fare much better, ranking 13th in the world in infrastructure quality, behind China, Indonesia, Australia, India, and Japan, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.
While the $567 billion for transportation and infrastructure programs set aside in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will alleviate some of the challenges that face us with regard to aging infrastructure, there remains a backlog of projects. But, I sincerely believe that new technologies can help us play catch up by allowing architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals and asset owners to work more efficiently and effectively – promoting safety, resiliency, and sustainability at the same time.
A big challenge facing many AEC firms right now is the need to increase throughput. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation can greatly reduce or even eliminate repetitive tasks. Software, for example, can merge network design and project management to increase engineering throughput and keep projects moving. Replacing manual labor with automated systems could help increase throughput during construction as well. Automated models can improve on-site resource allocation—both labor and machinery—and reduce traffic congestion through intelligent routing and AI-powered robotics or self-driving machinery.
Another issue that AEC firms and asset owners need to address is how to increase efficiency. Digital twins can deliver realistic and dynamic representations of physical assets or systems that provide insight, enable data-driven decisions, and improve business outcomes. Or help avoid rework and change orders during the design and build process of a project. AI-based systems can assist with predictive maintenance by analyzing sensor data on system components to better assess machine health, optimize maintenance and repair schedules, and more. Remote sensors can feed asset performance back to engineers noting when maintenance or replacement is needed, keeping assets in optimal working condition, avoiding breakdowns, and increasing reliability. Collaboration technologies such as common or connected data environments also help avoid data loss and rework, allowing agencies and contractors to streamline project delivery and contract administration when passing off drawings and data or coordinating change orders.
Asset safety and resiliency have never been more important. Combining LiDAR and other reality capture data with machine learning can eliminate physical inspections—making it faster and safer to manage infrastructure assets. For example, a mounted camera on top of a train engine can inspect bridges or rail lines for cracks, foreign objects, or other anomalies, helping avert larger incidents. Simulation technology can inform emergency response plans for severe weather events, flooding, storm surges, and more. Machine learning can analyze past incidents, natural disasters, or even social unrest to predict the impact on structures as well as identify areas that need preventative safeguards. Job site and employee safety are critical too. Wearable technology such as GPS tags can improve job site safety by alerting workers when they enter a hazardous zone. These devices can reduce worker health incidents by detecting and alerting them to shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, heat-related illness, fatigue, and more.
And then there’s the issue of increasing and improving sustainability. Infrastructure construction and operations—power plants, buildings, and transportation—account for approximately 70% of all global emissions. As infrastructure owners look to make more sustainable decisions, technology paves a faster path to sustainability. Remote-controlled sensors can measure and monitor carbon releases so owners can choose and maintain designs that improve the environment. Building design software and augmented reality help asset owners and municipalities visualize projects before they are built. This can minimize the environmental impact of infrastructure construction by reducing rework, material use, and energy consumption.
Asset owners face tough decisions about when and whether to build, renovate, upgrade, reinforce, or demolish aging buildings and infrastructure. However, by using real-time data, remote sensing, imaging, and scenario simulations, decisions across the infrastructure lifecycle will be more timely, accurate, and safe. With the right technologies and strategies in hand, AEC firms and asset owners will be able to improve the safety, resiliency, and sustainability of water, energy, and transportation infrastructure for future generations.