How Eloque and Xerox Are Changing The Way Bridges Are Managed

New sensor technology by Eloque and Xerox, being deployed in Australia, has the potential to change the way bridges are maintained and monitored.

Single span concrete bridges, such as this one, are prime candidates to be fitted out with Eloque’s sensors. (Image courtesy of Illinois DOT.)

Single span concrete bridges, such as this one, are prime candidates to be fitted out with Eloque’s sensors. (Image courtesy of Illinois DOT.)

When Ersin Uzun, technologist and vice president and general manager of IoT at Xerox, sits down with a client, his first question to them is: “What’s keeping you up at night?” It’s a question Uzun has worked hard to help many business leaders unpack and answer over his lengthy career, and it’s a question he posed to the CEO of VicTrack, a firm that manages a large swath of transportation assets in Victoria, Australia. It turns out what was keeping the CEO up all night was the fact that he had billions of dollars worth of infrastructure under management and no way to receive true real-time data on them—no way of knowing their status or condition at any moment in time.

This is an all-too-common problem when it comes to infrastructure management, and certainly one that does keep many engineers and government officials tossing and turning all night. Global infrastructure is aging past its expiration date at the same time maintenance and construction budgets are being under greater and greater scrutiny. Bridges, roads, airports and dams are crucial parts of keeping countries moving and functioning, but time and again they fail us—and often with no warning.

Sensors and data loggers do exist for bridges and other structures, but they are limited in the scope of what type of data they can collect. Traditional strain gauges, for example, can monitor movement but are not necessarily useful for providing predictive, actionable data that can spur immediate action should a problem with the structure arise. Manual inspections are also rife with the potential for human error, made painfully evident by the recent closure of the Hernando de Soto Bridge over the Mississippi River between Tennessee and Arkansas.

Smart sensors from Eloque would have caught the near-catastrophic crack in the Hernando de Soto Bridge long before it got to the point of near-total fracture. (Image courtesy of Arkansas Times.)

Smart sensors from Eloque would have caught the near-catastrophic crack in the Hernando de Soto Bridge long before it got to the point of near-total fracture. (Image courtesy of Arkansas Times.)

The best way to solve the issues facing infrastructure managers and overseers is to modernize the way data from their assets is collected and monitored. Stemming from this need, Xerox and the Victorian Government have launched Eloque to leverage first-of-their-kind Internet of Things (IoT) sensors in bridges to monitor vibration, strain, corrosion and bending. This is the first intelligent infrastructure sensor application, now known as Eloque Bridge.

The overarching goal from the teams at Eloque and Xerox was to develop an all-encompassing sensor that could provide data smoothly and comprehensively. More importantly, the data goes so much deeper than the typical visual inspections that are required to deem a bridge safe for the traveling public. Uzun believes this is significantly more valuable than annual or biannual inspections.

“Actually seeing how the bridge behaves under load is really the measure, not somebody going and looking, and then kind of knocking on things. This does not give you the level of information at the resolution that you need to be able to really judge the status of the bridge. From a value point of view, there are really three things. When you do periodic, you don’t know what happened in the middle between inspections, and if something happens, especially on a crucial bridge, you want to know immediately so that you can actually go and fix it before it propagates and creates a much bigger problem. The second is that all these entities are overseeing and operating and owning these assets, and they have a limited maintenance budget. They need to know where they should be putting those resources. Finally, a lot of bridges are underutilized in terms of load-carrying capacity because they are conservatively posted. With additional data, proper load limits can be assigned based on data.”

Eloque’s technology is built around fiberoptic sensing using hair-thin wires that have been in development for several years. The installation process is non-destructive and fully integrated into the structure. Ultimately, the sensors being developed by the Eloque team check all of the boxes that engineers and infrastructure consultants needed. They house data in a centralized location, require minimal intrusion into the bridge for installation and offer an out-of-the-box solution that does not have a steep learning curve for less tech-savvy personnel.

Uzun explained, “The question was, ‘Why don’t you centralize those bridges, and what’s preventing you?’ Then, a whole series of problems starts to flow our way in things like, ‘Well, we need to understand many things about the bridge, and each of them requires a different sensor. We need a deflection sensitive vibration sensor and a strain sensor, and another one for corrosion.’ We know that’s not necessarily everything, and we still need to send inspection teams. Being able to measure multiple types of structure data was our big challenge. The other big challenge was solving the placement of the sensors on existing bridges. We can’t take apart the concrete or drill holes, so we needed something that was not intrusive. Lastly, our discussions with engineers and transportation officials showed us we needed to house all of the data collected in a singular location. They’re used to going out and buying sensors from different vendors, installing them and sending the data out to other platforms for analytics. We needed to put everything under one roof and make it easy to use because bridge owners are not necessarily technology experts.”

Data flows in quickly once the Eloque sensors are installed, with the added bonus of machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics.

Uzun dished on the intuitive abilities of the sensors. “Our smart technology leans on decades of experience in doing hybrid reasoning. When I say hybrid reasoning, what I mean is we combine data-driven approaches, which are machine learning in AI base, together with the physics-based models, the new sexy name for that is digital twin. We actually have models of different kinds of bridges that can be finetuned based on the material structure substructure type. Based on the bridge that we are deploying, we can set the variables to represent that bridge in the digital environment. Then, when we get the data and can interpret it, even for the faults that we haven’t seen before.”

“The technology has already been deployed on seven bridges in Victoria and will be progressively deployed on priority bridges, particularly those that regularly deal with heavy loads and are at the most risk of deterioration,” said VicTrack Chief Executive Officer Campbell A. Rose AM, who is also leading Eloque as CEO through its early stages of development. “This is solving a major pain point for customers and allowing them to better manage their assets.”

In the early stages of deployment, Eloque and Xerox are focusing their efforts on short-span steel and concrete structures. The company is in the process of developing techniques that can be applied to more complex or historic structures. It is, however, in the smaller structures that Eloque may be able to unlock the most value for their customers. The overwhelming majority of bridges in countries like the United States are of the short-span variety, and many are aging quickly and unpredictably. Making matters worse, these bridges are scattered across states, often miles removed from other bridges. Inspectors end up spending more time traveling to and from the bridge than performing the inspection.

“Believe it or not, one of the biggest problems that you have with those remote bridges is somebody hits that bridge, and nobody knows about that,” Uzun said. “Now you have an asset that is vulnerable, and you’d have no idea. So having this kind of technology and seeing that kind of impact immediately and what damage it caused is a very valuable insight that owners are looking for.”

The potential for this technology to revolutionize the way transportation assets are managed and analyzed is massive, but Eloque and Xerox don’t plan on stopping there.

“I think within our lifetime, we will see infrastructure and the autonomous vehicles talking to each other,” Uzun mused on his technology’s long-term potential to redefine infrastructure management. “We will see the usage patterns of transportation networks based on the weather, how strong the current wind is and what level of load that the bridge is experiencing right now. You’ll see DOTs dynamically limiting how many of those very heavy assets go over the bridge, and then you dynamically set their speed limit. This is one example of how full autonomy across the infrastructure and users of the infrastructures could behave. From another futuristic point of view, which is actually starting to get into our product map, this is not limited to bridges. Things like tunnels, ports and dams are very similar to bridges and need to be maintained.”

As a nation, America is at a crossroads when it comes to infrastructure management and spending. Over 40 percent of the country’s bridges are over 50 years old, with nearly 8 percent labeled structurally deficient. Eloque’s smart technology and sensors won’t solve all of the problems facing engineers and transportation leaders tasked with keeping bridges safe and operational, but it will make their jobs easier now and into the future. Now is an exciting time for infrastructure professionals as new technologies like emerge and revolutionize the field of civil engineering.