Identifying what needs to happen to improve America’s roads, bridges, water and more.

America’s infrastructure is failing. No matter which side of the political debate you land on, this is a fact on which most Americans agree. Many watched as the I-35W bridge collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007 over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Today, many are listening as frequent water study updates are emerging from Flint, Mich., following the recent news of lead in the water.

From failing bridges, to contaminated water, and beyond, America’s infrastructure is failing. While there are a number of considerations the government needs to make first to bring its infrastructure up to date, construction companies are landing in the middle of this—and many are finding technology can help build the infrastructure of the future.

From sensors in bridges, to monitoring safety of failing infrastructure, to the impact of GPR (ground-penetrating radar) data, and the benefit of techniques such as 3D concrete paving, infrastructure is getting an upgrade. Now, contractors and corporate owners need to ask themselves: How are we helping build the infrastructure of the future and what role can technology play?

Infrastructure Challenges

There are a number of challenges associated with building the next-generation of infrastructure in America. Perhaps two of the biggest hurdles that exist are government regulations and considerations and technical integration challenges—both of which are being addressed today.

Looking at the former, the United States’ infrastructure systems today require repair and reconstruction. Adding to this, many cities are increasingly becoming overcrowded and congested. Many in government recognize that our infrastructure needs to be fixed; however, few have a solution for how to get there.

The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card gives America’s infrastructure a D+ grade and estimates $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020 to bring it up to acceptable levels. Areas in particular that are poor include energy, roads, wastewater, levees, drinking water, schools, transit, waterways, aviation, hazardous waste and dams. The organization has three key solutions to improve the grade: increase leadership in infrastructure renewal, promote sustainability and resilience, and develop and fund plans to maintain and enhance America’s infrastructure.

In addition, the nation needs government, tech companies, and construction to come together to develop innovative solutions to address the infrastructure challenges faced today. To help, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers announced the Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge—a three-phased, crowd-sourced competition to award prizes for innovative ideas to improve crumbling infrastructure. The challenge leverages HeroX crowdsourcing model designed to bring business, technological, and social innovation to local and global communities. The first two phases—complain to engage the public and dream to solicit new thinking and solutions—launched earlier this year. The final phase—build to implement solutions on a larger scale—will launch in summer 2016.

Initiatives such as this will help improve America’s infrastructure. With advancing technology such as drones, automated cars, and other tools to effectively measure and manage how infrastructure is performing, the opportunities for improving America’s infrastructure are endless.

On the technology side of the equation, however, one of the biggest challenges is bringing all of the players together to deliver solutions to build technology of the future. This is where initiatives such as Envision America come into play. Evolving out of Envision Charlotte, which began in 2011, with a goal of reducing energy use by 20% within the center city in five years, Envision America brings municipal leaders, tech companies, and academia together to help create smart-city solutions for the future.

Today, 10 cities are involved in the program including Cambridge, Mass., Dallas, Texas, Greenville, S.C., Los Angeles, Calif., Milwaukee, Wis., New York, N.Y., Pittsburgh, Pa., Portland, Ore., San Diego, Calif., and Spokane, Wash. Corporate partners include Accelerated Innovations, AT&T, Autodesk, Bank of America, Black & Veatch, Cisco, Duke Energy, Esri, GE, IBM, Intel, Itron, Landis+Gyr, Microsoft, OSIsoft, Qualcomm, SAS, ThingWorx, agrade and Wells Fargo.

Amy Aussieker, executive director, Envision Charlotte, says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx has been a leader as Charlotte’s mayor and as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in advocating for innovative solutions to build better communities.

While initiatives are making headway, construction companies and corporate owners are already making strides, implementing “smart” technologies to improve America’s infrastructure.

Solutions for the Future

One way for cities to improve infrastructure and prevent future catastrophes is by installing monitoring technology to keep an eye on the structural behavior of bridges.

As one example, The Living Bridge Project in New Hampshire, explores the future of smart and sustainable infrastructure. The project team has designed and deployed a structural and environmental monitoring system that provides information for bridge condition assessment, traffic management, and environmental stewardship. Sensors will be used to calibrate a 3D analytical structural finite element model of the bride, and predicted structural response from this model will assess the measured structural response of the bridge as acceptable or not. The duration of the project is from 2014 until 2017 and efforts will make bridge data, history and information about new systems available to the public.

As another example, the University of Michigan is doing research on a wireless sensor system for structural health monitoring, bridge safety, and damage detection, which measures electrical impedance to detect changes in the condition of the bridge, such as steel corrosion and concrete deterioration. The structural health monitoring device consists of three components including a wireless transceiver, a direct digital synthesizer with a 32-channel multiplexed sensing interface, and a microcontroller that communicates between the transceiver and synthesizer—all mounted on circuit boards and contained within a portable housing.

While wirelessly monitoring bridges is one way to improve infrastructure, another is using GPR (ground-penetrating radar). In Thomaston, Conn., Infrasense, a provider of infrastructure nondestructive evaluations, completed subsurface condition investigations for two bridge decks over the Naugatuck River. The deterioration mapping was performed using vehicle-mounted GPR to scan each bridge deck without requiring land closures. The information produced deterioration maps and helped to locate cores for compressive strength testing and chloride sampling. The results are used to plan future rehabilitation efforts.

Infrasense also used GPR technology to do visual surveys of the downtown Las Vegas viaduct decks, which carry more than 1.5 miles of I-515. The data gathered was analyzed to quantify and map subsurface conditions using in-house software and proprietary methodologies. GPR, infrared and visual image datasets provide transportation agencies with accurate and comprehensive bridge deck condition information, ultimately enabling preservation, rehabilitation and replacement decisions.

Another technique that is continuing to advance is 3D concrete paving. This is the case for Topcon dealer Ozark Laser and Shoring. Eddie Brown, machine control specialist, Ozark, is in charge of the paving business, which manages, sells, and supports stringless concrete technology. He says that no stringlines on the job enhances safety and access, provides more accessibility to the jobsite for cement trucks and equipment, and improves paving machine maneuverability. The use of 3D concrete paving has increased growth for Ozark and opened doors for other areas of business. Ozark helped install machine-control systems for Kansas Paving, implementing Topcon’s automated suite with dozer and motor grader systems, as well as survey rovers.

While these are just a few examples of how technology has advanced for road and bridge construction projects, contractors and corporate owners have an opportunity to help build the infrastructure of the future—and technology can certainly play a big role in helping streamline business processes.