Rutgers receives innovation award for bridge inspection robot


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Photo by Courtesy of Nenad Gucunski |

The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded Rutgers the 2014 Charles Pankow Award for Innovation for its Robotics Assisted Bridge Inspection Tool.


Thanks to Rutgers, bridge maintenance is taking a large step in damage prevention — through the creation of automated data-gathering robots.

The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded Rutgers the 2014 Charles Pankow Award for Innovation for its Robotics Assisted Bridge Inspection Tool. Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation designed and constructed RABIT.

The award is the highest award given by the ASCE, said Nenad Gucunski, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. It awards successful development and collaboration between academia, government and industry.

The robot cost about $2.5 million to build, funded entirely by the Federal Highway Administration, he said.

The project began about three years ago, said Ronny Lim, a researcher in CAIT.

They are currently testing the robot in the field, he said. The team goes to bridges and collects data to check how well it operates.

RABIT got the chance to scan the George Washington Memorial Bridge in February.

“[Lim] actually went to West Virginia with the robot last week,” Gucunski said. “Next week, the team will be going to Delaware and Pennsylvania.”

Gucunski also recently presented their creation in South Africa and Turkey.

RABIT improves bridge maintenance by remotely checking interior and exterior bridge conditions, he said.

Cracks in the pavement, for instance, are due to deterioration of the rebar, the bridge’s backbone.

Once the rebar of any bridge starts corroding, it creates a corrosive product that expands more than ice does, he said. This leads to the pavement separating slowly but surely.

“If the rebar is bad, the bridge is likely to age much faster,” Lim said.

RABIT is able to assess corrosion inside and outside of the bridge using only its acoustic sensors, he said.

The current method to check for internal damage involves a heavy chain, much like knocking on a wall to hear for a hollow sound, Gucunski said.

“If you hear that hollow sound, it might already be too late,” he said. “You most likely have to do major repairs.”

CAIT tries to detect problems in much earlier stages, he said. The scanning technology is similar to getting X-ray scans from your doctor.

“The importance of being able to scan the interior cannot be understated,” he said. “You would not feel good if you went to a doctor and he or she concluded that you were okay from just looking at you.”

 The appeal of RABIT is the automation as well, Lim said.

“We go to the bridges, define the area of interest and put the location into RABIT [and] it’s on its way,” he said.

The path of RABIT is predetermined, said Hung La, a faculty member of CAIT. The dimensions of the deck must be known before RABIT is deployed.

The 1,000-pound robot is carried around by a van that wirelessly collects, processes and visualizes the data gathered by the robot.

“We can see all of this data in real time and it tells us a lot about the condition of the bridge,” he said.

RABIT also has a panoramic camera, making the option of capturing images of a bridge’s attachments possible, he said.

They are also working on software that uses this data to render a fully interactive 3-D model, Gucunski said. It helps show where everything is located in a user-friendly manner.

“For now, the robot maps the conditions on an image it has,” he said. “It’s a lot more precise than manual methods of approximation, but can still be improved.”

RABIT is a prototype, so possible updated versions of the vehicle are sure to be both improved and cheaper, he said.

It can collect information in much higher rates than traditional methods, he said. They hope that many companies and agencies adopt it.

One downside to the robot is its inability to operate in rain, Hung La said. As a prototype, the team did not design RABIT to be used in all conditions.

“We have to introduce technologies in a smart way, and I have no doubt that the overall cost will decrease for this expensive little toy,” he said.

Another benefit of deploying RABIT is worker safety.

“There is a possibility that a wayward driver severely hurts a worker on the road, but it’s not so bad with a robot,” he said. “If a tractor trailer hits a robot, we can just build another robot.”

In October, RABIT is scheduled to survey the New Jersey Turnpike.

Gucunski hopes to have the robot work for the New Jersey Department of Transportation beginning next year.

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