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Knowing when to repair and when to rebuild

By [email protected] - 1st November 2019 - 14:21

Europe has engineered so many incredible advances in infrastructure. Just look at the Vasco da Gama cable-stayed bridge in Lisbon spanning more than 16km or the impressive E40, the road that runs nearly 8,000km connecting 10 countries in Europe and the Middle East.

But as an industry, while we are fantastic at creating new things and celebrating these successes, we’re not good at taking care of our completed assets and we sweep them aside for the next big challenge.

When it comes to infrastructure failing, we’re often not just talking about commercial loss, a damaged reputation and disgruntled stakeholders, we’re also talking about human lives.

The crumbling infrastructure plaguing Europe is no surprise – we raced to rebuild our cities after World War II to house citizens and drive our economy forward – but we’re now at a point where we must take action to remedy these 50+ year-old structures that are putting lives and livelihoods at risk.

It has been just over a year since the bridge collapse in Italy, where the Morandi Bridge in Genoa crumbled and killed 43 people. The biggest tragedy in this event is that it was preventable. Engineers and experts had warned of critical issues with the structure for years, but nothing was done.

Technology already exists to properly inspect, assess and monitor the health of these structures. We have specialist inspection companies with scanners and UAVs, and there are businesses with advanced monitoring equipment. The problem seems to lie in proving the worthiness of the investment in this technology and how we properly use it.

The situation we face

Let’s continue with bridges as a theme. There are hundreds of thousands of road bridges across Europe and millions of people cross them daily without a second thought, so how do we care for them at the moment?

A French study found at least 25,000 of the country’s bridges – 10% of the total number – were in a ‘bad structural state’ and that, on average, it takes 22 years from the first signs of degradation being reported for a bridge to be fixed. In Norway, the Norwegian Road Supervisory Authority discovered three years ago that the government had lost track of the condition of many of the country’s more than 17,000 bridges, and the reports of unsafe conditions and damage weren’t raised properly for years – some waited up to 20 years to be recognised. One of Spain’s parliamentary members claimed last year that the country has a backlog of infrastructure maintenance totalling €6.6bn.

Perhaps because of the Genoa bridge collapse, we now see those in power sitting up and taking notice of the issues our industry is bringing to them. Germany, for instance, announced last year that it would invest €1.3bn on bridge repairs and rebuilding, and France has called for a Marshall Plan to address those bridges in a ‘bad structural state’.

The industry must prove its worth to find more efficient and accurate ways of keeping our ageing infrastructure alive. That can come through streamlining the process of inspection and monitoring.

A better way of working

Regular and proper inspection of an asset can identify issues before they pose any real risk to its structural integrity, keeping it in operation. State of the art UAVs, such as the Topcon Intel Falcon 8+, can capture the most minute detail with high-definition imaging, thermal and RGB stills, providing a digital model of the structure for virtual inspection.

It’s a start to have a visualisation of the asset, but for the full picture, the data must also be accurate. Powerful software is already available on the market for assessment of this inspection data, such as Magnet Collage and Magnet Inspect, which can provide time savings thanks to intuitive reporting for quick and accurate identification of any issues.

This investment in the inspection part of the process allows for appropriate maintenance to delay and/or avoid any structural failures that could cost astronomically more to remedy. But alone, it doesn’t consider the next steps in the process of good asset management.

Should any issues arise, it isn’t always necessary to jump straight to repairs, but it is necessary that the issue is closely monitored.

Monitoring systems have been available for decades, but connected and evaluative monitoring systems are making monitoring simpler than ever by providing comprehensive reporting and visualisation features for ongoing construction such as repairs and for monitoring structural health. Application of this technology is fostering the foundation of Smart Cities, with smart sensors being used during and post-build, ensuring our use of facilities is as efficient as possible.

As well as improved efficiencies aiding to prove the value of investment in this technology, the accuracy and real-time capture of data on projects is crucial to ensure the safety of construction teams as well as those using the structure.

This workflow puts inspection, assessment and monitoring in one clear pathway that protects the asset and those around it.

Quality and efficiency

With the sheer number of structures considered dangerous across Europe, it’s critical we assess their state of repair appropriately. We can only do this by gaining quality data, assessing it intelligently, and having the best tools to help us manage the next steps.

When issues do arise (and they undoubtedly will), we must be ready to brief subcontractors instantly so that the problem can be dealt with in just as efficient a manner as we spotted it. Having access to data capture by technology like this means any team involved in the process is effectively singing from the same hymn sheet. There will be no crossed wires with the state of the asset or the plans developed to address the issue. The job can be done right and as quickly as possible the first time.

Bridging the gap

It is clear that across Europe, we need more investment funnelled into helping us keep our ageing infrastructure intact and functioning or to aid with its replacement. That investment should be placed towards the technology that can help us inspect, assess and monitor more quickly and more accurately than ever before, to ensure the safety of our citizens and the success of our economy.

Peter Berger is business development manager monitoring & tunnelling for Topcon Positioning Group (

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