March 13, 2017
Focus: Construction

Startup’s sensor tech aims for better bridge inspections

Q&A talks to Kevin McMullen, a UConn civil engineering graduate student who founded a startup called NexGen Infrastructure, which provides state-of-the-art bridge monitoring systems.

The technology uses force-sensing pads (sensors) to provide continuous electronic monitoring and data collection that allows engineers to better evaluate and react to changes in a bridge's performance over its lifespan.

UConn Engineering professor Hadi Bozorgmanesh started a program at UConn to develop engineering students into entrepreneurs. McMullen took the first experiential tech entrepreneurship course in 2015, where he developed NexGen's technology. His co-founders were UConn professor Arash Esmaili Zaghi and grad student Alexandra Hain.

Q: Is this type of bridge monitoring new? It seems like in the not-too-distant past the state had bridge inspectors. Does this automate the process and eliminate the need for them?

A: Research projects have been conducted by other universities and companies to integrate different types of sensors into bridge bearings to monitor their performance. A majority of these projects have significant concerns regarding cost, constructability and implementation.

A current method commonly used to monitor and evaluate a bridge's performance is structural health monitoring. Structural health monitoring studies are commonly conducted on bridges of interest or concern to determine how they are functioning under daily traffic. These studies consist of applying various sensors at several locations on a bridge to monitor force, strain and displacement. This process is tedious, expensive, and is only used to monitor a small number of critical bridges.

Bridge inspectors are still required to inspect every bridge at least every two years. This involves visual inspection of every component of the bridge. They look at structural components such as corrosion and cracking. The development of a force sensing bridge bearing that can monitor a bridge's performance under traffic loads will not eliminate the need for visual bridge inspection. However, it will provide engineers with data to make more informed decisions regarding a bridge's performance and justify or reevaluate findings from initial visual inspection of the structure. Unlike visual inspection, this bearing will allow for continuous monitoring.

Q: One of the benefits of your new product is determining if a bridge is overstressed and carrying more weight than its design intends. Will there be real-time monitoring of bridges?

A: This force-sensing bridge bearing may serve as a tool for engineers to complete real-time monitoring. This may allow engineers to tailor rehabilitation designs and schedules to the current performance of the bridge. This is a major benefit to assist with inspection techniques as it provides up-to-date performance results as opposed to data being collected every two years.

The data collected from these bridge bearings may be used to evaluate bridge designs as well. Bridges may be redesigned due to the performance results. This could be completed by posting a weight limit for the bridge or by rehabilitating the structure.

Q: What is the potential impact of your product on bridges? A recent analysis of federal data by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association found over 8 percent of Connecticut's 5,300 bridges are deficient. How can your technology help with this problem, particularly at a time when there is limited funds to pay for infrastructure repairs.

A. That lack of funding is where our sensors could be most useful. By allowing decision-makers to have more data, they could judge which repairs are most critical. Our product may provide a non-intrusive, cost-effective method to monitor the forces on a bridge bearing.

This product does not inherently alter the bridges lifespan, rather it gives engineers an additional tool to help them better understand the structures performance. The sensors can also be installed when bridge bearings are being replaced, which is a common procedure.

Q: What's the potential market for your product? Will there be private industry applications for it as well?

A: We are currently targeting federal and state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) as they are the owners of most highway bridges in the United States. Acceptance of new technologies in infrastructure projects can be challenging due to the conservative nature of the field and a hesitance to deviate from conventional methods.

Therefore, we must convince the DOTs of the minimal risk and high reward of our technology. The knowledge that may be gained by real-time monitoring of a structure is invaluable for evaluating current designs and developing future designs. Our technology has the potential to be applied to other industries such as oil and gas and high-rise buildings, but the current focus is solely on bridges.

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