bridge workers installing sonar equipment

MnDOT tests new technologies to monitor bridge scour

A research implementation project could provide MnDOT with a new set of tools to help combat a major source of bridge failure.

The MnDOT Bridge Office is testing several new methods of monitoring bridge scour — erosion that occurs around bridge piers and abutments during high water-flow events like floods. Acting Waterway Engineer Nicole Danielson-Bartelt said the project’s goal is to be able to monitor scour-critical bridges remotely rather than sending maintenance personnel out on the water during difficult or hazardous conditions.

“There are a number of bridges that are pretty difficult to monitor, especially during high water events,” she said. “Typically, you need to get out on a boat and do either sonar readings or drop weights. It’s dangerous work to be out on the water during those types of events unless you have the right training.”

The project will evaluate several different monitoring technologies, including continuous monitoring equipment like tilt meters and active sonar. The sonar systems, which allows continuous stream bed and water surface elevation data to be transmitted to a website for graphical display, could provide benefits that go beyond monitoring individual bridges.

“The ability to collect continuous, long-term data could help engineers understand short term scour-fill and long term aggradation-degradation cycles,” said Solomon Woldeamlak, a Bridge Office hydraulic engineer. He added that the data can be used to calibrate existing methods of estimating scour at bridges.

Other devices being tested include “float-out” devices, which are buried in the sand around the abutment and send out a signal only if washed to the surface by a scour. Danielson-Bartelt said these non-continuous monitoring devices might be appropriate for bridges where installing permanent sonar is not advisable due to the presence of debris that could damage the equipment.

Monitoring equipment has been installed at two locations: the Highway 43 Winona bridge over the Mississippi River and the Highway 14 Mankato bridge over the Minnesota River. A final report on the project is expected in late 2014/early 2015. You can learn more about some of the products that are being tested on the website of ETI Instrument Systems, Inc., which provided the equipment.

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