Tag Archives: bridge

Cost-Effective Strategies for Repairing Grout in Post-Tensioned Bridges

Researchers provided recommendations and general guidance to assist MnDOT in developing cost-effective strategies for future investigation and repair contracts of post-tensioned bridges built in Minnesota before 2003. To develop these recommendations, researchers identified grout voids in post-tensioning ducts on two representative bridges, documented strand corrosion and repaired voids by filling them with grout.

“With the guidelines developed in this project, we have a good basis for cost-effectively and efficiently inspecting post-tensioned bridges built before 2003,” said Dustin Thomas, South Region Bridge Construction Engineer, MnDOT Bridge Office.

“From a fiscal perspective, it makes sense to do limited inspections on these bridges before committing additional resources to more comprehensive inspection and repair,” said Mark Chauvin, Associate Principal and Unit Manager at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.

What Was the Need?

Some concrete bridges in the United States are strengthened using post-tensioning—a method of reinforcing concrete by running steel strands through a hollow plastic or metal duct placed within the concrete element. Tension is then applied to these strands with a hydraulic jack, com-pressing the concrete and creating internal stresses that resist external traffic loads. Post-tensioning improves the durability of concrete and virtually eliminates cracking.

Post-tensioning ducts are filled with grout—a mixture of cement, sand and water that hardens around the steel strands. This practice prevents the strands from corroding if they are exposed to air, water and deicing chemicals.

Grouting materials used in bridges built before 2003 frequently produced voids where grout did not fully fill the post-tensioning ducts or cover the strands. These post-tensioning strands were vulnerable to corrosion, which can lead to deterioration in bridge elements over time. Once transportation agencies and the industry became aware of these issues, they improved their construction practices and began using prepackaged grout materials with additives so that the post-tensioning ducts would be completely filled.

About 40 post-tensioned bridges were built in Minnesota before 2003 that might still require repair. MnDOT commissioned a two-phase project to develop techniques for evaluating these structures. In the first phase of the project, completed in 2012, researchers inspected a representative sample of these bridges and developed a general inspection protocol to guide future investigations. In the second phase, described here, researchers developed additional guidance about grout repairs, as well as the most cost-effective contracting methods for such repairs.

What Was Our Goal?

The goal of the second phase of this project was to provide recommendations and general guidance that MnDOT could use to develop cost-effective strategies for future investigation and repair of post-tensioned bridges built in Minnesota before 2003. As part of this project, researchers identified grout voids in post-tensioning ducts on two representative bridges, documented strand corrosion and repaired voids by filling them with grout.

Workers repairing grout voids
Following bridge inspections, about one-third of discovered grout voids were filled using vacuum-assisted or pressure grouting repair techniques.

What Did We Do?

In 2013, researchers inspected three spans on two Minnesota bridges for voids around post-tensioning strands. They began the project by using ground penetrating radar to map the location of the ducts. Once the ducts were located and mapped, researchers used a borescope to visually inspect the duct interiors at locations where voids were likely to be present. When they found voids, they documented the percentage of the duct filled by grout and the extent of corrosion in the post-tensioning strands within the ducts, if any. Following inspection, researchers filled the voids with grout and installed sensors within the voids at two locations to monitor the long-term corrosion of post-tensioning strands.

Using their experience with these repairs, researchers then created guidelines that would help MnDOT develop cost-effective strategies that can be implemented in future post-tensioning duct investigation and repair contracts.

What Did We Learn?

Researchers found voids in 32 percent of inspected ducts. These voids were typically at least 10 feet long and about one-half the diameter of the duct. Although prestressing steel strands were exposed at approximately half of the grout voids, no significant corrosion of the strands was observed at any location. Light to moderate corrosion was usually observed on the inside surfaces of the galvanized metal ducts at grout voids.

The guidelines developed by researchers address:

  • Typical work plans for investigation and repair, including considerations for bridge access and traffic maintenance during inspection and repair.
  • Document review, including bridge design drawings and post-tensioning shop drawings.
  • Visual surveys to identify signs of distress near post-tensioning ducts.
  • Procedures for borescope inspection and remedial grouting repair.
  • Various contract and project approaches for developing specialized inspection and re-medial repair contracts, with a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Using multiple contracts with graduated levels of inspection and repair will most likely provide MnDOT with the best value.
  • Planning-level cost information for seven representative pre-2003 post-tensioning bridges identified by MnDOT to assist in future budget calculations.

What’s Next?

The guidelines developed in this project will provide MnDOT with a framework to solicit and procure similar engineering and construction services contracts for post-tensioning bridges in Minnesota. Researchers recommend exploring additional techniques to more rapidly assess and inspect post-tensioned bridges, including noninvasive investigative methods that do not require drilling holes.


This post pertains to Report 2017-04, “Considerations for Development of Inspection and Remedial Grouting Contracts for Post-tensioned Bridges,” published January 2017.

New Project: Phase 3 of Drone Bridge Inspection Research Focuses on Confined Spaces

MnDOT recently entered into a contract with Collins Engineers Inc. to complete a third phase of research testing drones for bridge inspections, with a new focus on confined spaces.

This Phase 3 project is titled “Improving Quality of Bridge Inspections Using Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” Jennifer Wells, MnDOT maintenance bridge engineer, will serve as the project’s technical liaison. Barritt Lovelace, regional manager for Collins Engineering, will serve as principal investigator.

“Phase 3 will allow us to utilize a new drone specific to confined space inspections,” Wells said. “This new drone is meant to reach places the prior drones could not, which will supplement our efforts nicely.  Also, Phase 3 will include more bridge inspections in order to get a more comprehensive feel for cost and time savings.”

The increasing costs of bridge inspections are a concern for MnDOT. The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has been shown to reduce costs, improve the quality of bridge inspections, and increase safety. The UAS can deploy a wide range of imaging technologies including high definition still, video, and infrared sensors, and data can be analyzed using 3D imaging software.

MnDOT completed a small research project in 2015 to study the effectiveness of UAS technology applied to bridge safety inspections. The project team inspected four bridges at various locations throughout Minnesota and evaluated UAS’ effectiveness in improving inspection quality and inspector safety based on field results.

A second research effort demonstrated UAS imaging on the Blatnik Bridge and investigated UAS use for infrared deck surveys. Additionally, a best practices document was created to identify bridges that are best suited for UAS inspection.

It is the goal, based on this next phase of research, to implement a statewide UAS bridge inspection plan, which will identify overall cost effectiveness, improvements in quality and safety, and future funding sources for both state and local bridges.

Collins Engineering will also investigate a collision tolerant drone — the Flyability Elios — for confined space inspections.

As part of the Phase 3 project, Collins Engineering will:

  • Review current Federal Aviation (FAA) rules, technical literature, owners and industry experiences, and ongoing UAS research.
  • Develop bridge inspection list based on Phase II research regarding best practices. Approximately 20-25 bridges will be inspected under this contract depending on location and size.
  • Develop a field work plan for the bridge inspection list. If approvals for these bridges cannot be obtained, suitable alternatives will be chosen. This field work plan will address safety concerns, FAA, and other agency requirements.
  • Establish a work schedule and deliverable submission schedule.
  • Establish methods of access and schedule equipment.
  • Receive training on the Flyability collision tolerant drone for use in the study.
  • Perform field work at the selected bridges to collect imagery and evaluate the technology to accomplish the project goals.
  • Inspect known deficiencies identified during previous inspections with the use of the UAS to evaluate the ability to identify deficiencies using photos and video.
  • Enter bridge inspection data in Minnesota’s Structure Information Management System (SIMS) providing element condition ratings, photos, videos, etc. based on UAS imagery and information.
  • Prepare a draft report to document project activities, findings and recommendations.

The Phase 3 project is scheduled to be complete by July 2018.

MnDOT Improves on Award-Winning Use of Drones for Bridge Inspection

MnDOT’s efforts to study whether drones can help bridge inspectors are progressing, and the second phase project has been completed. (Meanwhile, a third project has just begun.)

Phase 1 of this research project demonstrated that drones can reduce safety risks and inconvenience to bridge inspectors and the traveling public. Phase 2 shows that new drones, designed with vertical and horizontal camera and sensor capabilities for structure inspections, give bridge inspectors safe access to under-deck areas that were previously difficult or impossible to reach. The new drones cost even less than the unit tested in Phase 1.

“Using a drone rather than snoopers for bridge inspection can save significant time and cost. The FHWA approves of this use as well. It’s another tool for inspectors to employ,” said Jennifer Wells, Principal Engineer on Mobility, MnDOT Office of Bridges and Structures.

“We were one of the first transportation agencies and contractors to test and use this new technology for bridge inspections. Drones let bridge inspectors collect more data and collect it more safely and efficiently,” said Barritt Lovelace, Regional Manager, Collins Engineers, Inc.

What Was the Need?

MnDOT and local bridge owners have 600 bridge inspectors who monitor more than 20,000 bridges in Minnesota. Each bridge must be inspected once every 24 months. Bridges in poor condition and those considered fracture-critical (where failure of a single component could cause collapse) must be inspected every 12 months. Large bridges can take weeks to fully inspect and often require inspectors to dangle from ropes or stand in buckets on the end of “snoopers,” cranes that reach from the bridge deck to below-deck level to put inspectors within sight of under-deck elements.

Snoopers are expensive and require traffic lane closures, presenting safety risks to the traveling public and inspectors. MnDOT established in a Phase 1 study that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) significantly augment inspection findings with infrared and imaging data while reducing safety risks to inspectors and the public. The project earned a 2016 Minnesota State Government Innovation Award as well as awards and recognition from such groups as the American Public Works Association.

UAS designed specifically for structure inspections were unavailable during Phase 1. The UAS used in that phase had key operational limitations, including the inability to proceed when concrete and steel bridge components blocked Global Positioning System (GPS) signals. When that happened, the drone simply returned to base automatically.

What Was Our Goal?

In Phase 2, MnDOT wanted to test the use of an upgraded UAS to examine larger and more challenging bridges. The new UAS, which was specially designed for structure inspections, featured more robust imaging and infrared data-gathering capabilities, and was more flexible to control. Its operational capabilities also were not diminished by the loss of GPS signals. Results from UAS inspections and traditional bridge inspection methods would be compared for quality and cost-effectiveness.

What Did We Do?

Investigators selected a prototype senseFly albris UAS to inspect four bridges:

  • The Blatnik Bridge over the St. Louis River between Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin, a 7,980-foot-long steel through-arch bridge with steel deck trusses.
  • A 362-foot-long two-span steel high truss bridge over the Red River in Nielsville, Minnesota.
  • A 263-foot-long corrugated steel culvert in St. Paul.
  • The Stillwater Lift Bridge, a 10-span structure over the St. Croix River with six steel through-truss spans and one movable span.

For each bridge or structure, researchers prepared detailed safety and inspection plans to identify and mitigate potential hazards, inspection needs and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements. Researchers conducted and evaluated UAS and standard inspection methods for each inspection site, analyzing results in terms of access technique, data collection and usefulness for interim and special inspections.

What Did We Learn?

The senseFly albris UAS offered a clear operational upgrade over the Phase 1 unit. It can operate without GPS; the camera lens can turn up and down at 90-degree angles; and protective shrouds and ultrasonic sensors prevent the propellers from striking bridge elements.

Thermal image of a bridge deck taken by a drone.
Thermal image of a bridge deck taken by a drone.

For some inspection functions, lane closures can be curtailed or eliminated altogether. The drone worked well in the high, confined spaces of the Blatnik Bridge and should provide under-deck inspection details otherwise unavailable or too costly for any tall bridge in the MnDOT system. This UAS identifies and measures clearances, rope access anchor points and other pre-inspection conditions for planning large-scale or emergency inspections. Photogrammetry software can be used with the UAS to develop three-dimensional models of bridges and bridge sites. Using infrared thermal sensors, the UAS can detect delamination of concrete while flying adjacent to lanes of traffic. For smaller, confined spaces on bridges and culverts, the senseFly albris may not be ideal. Despite its protective shrouds, it is not as collision-tolerant as needed for very tight spaces.

Currently no UAS replicates hands-on inspection functions like cleaning, sounding, measuring and tactile testing. But the UAS is an additional tool that provides conventional and improved data safely. The FAA and the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics no longer require private pilot certification for drone operators. A new, streamlined certification and licensing procedure makes drone use more practical.

Costs were significantly lower with UAS inspections than with conventional approaches. Conventional inspection of the Blatnik Bridge would have required four snoopers, an 80-foot lift and eight days of inspection, at a cost of about $59,000 (without the cost of mobilizing equipment and traveling). The UAS Blatnik Bridge inspection would contract as a five-day, $20,000 project.

What’s Next?

Phase 3, which began in the summer of 2017, uses the senseFly albris and the Flyability Elios, a collision-tolerant drone more suited to confined spaces such as box girders or culverts. During this phase, researchers will identify which situations are best suited for drone use, what parameters should govern drone use in bridge inspections, and how UAS can be integrated into standard inspection operations at a county and district level.


This Technical Summary pertains to Report 2017-18, “Unmanned Aircraft System Bridge Inspection Demonstration Project Phase II,” published June 2017.

New Project: Creating a Tool to Estimate Bridge Construction Time and Costs

MnDOT recently executed a contract with WSB & Associates Inc. to begin work on a research project titled “Bridge Construction Time and Costs.”

The research project will help the State of Minnesota’s Bridge Office develop a guidance document and a tool for bridge construction time estimation to be used by MnDOT District project managers and construction staff. The tool will provide a range of production rates based on specific design criteria, being more concise based on the level of information available and will aid in evaluating the potential benefit for accelerated bridge construction (ABC) techniques.

“This research will enable District project managers, who may not have bridge knowledge or background, to complete project planning and scoping more effectively,” said Paul Johns of MnDOT’s Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting.

Mike Rief of WSB & Associates will serve as the project’s principal investigator. Johns will serve as technical liaison.

According to the initial work plan, the project is scheduled to be completed by early March 2018, and WSB & Associates will complete the following tasks:

  1. Conduct an existing practices literature review of current departments of transportation processes around the United States for bridge time and cost estimation.
  2. Review and compile actual case study bridge construction production rates and cost data for major bridge components from state-provided diaries, schedules and bridge plans.
  3. Evaluate and select the best software format and style for a bridge construction time estimation tool. Load state case study production rate data into estimation tool and run validation using bridges currently under construction.
  4. Produce a research report summarizing the literature review on best practices. Produce a user guide for bridge time estimation tool and training presentation.
  5. An optional task, if the budget allows, will include the development of a cost estimating tool. Cost estimation data would be gathered from the literature review and case study analysis during the development of bridge construction time estimation tool for efficiency.

A Look at Local Bridge Removal Practices and Policies

Many local agencies in Minnesota lack funding to construct and maintain all the bridges in their roadway network. One way to lower costs is to reduce the number of bridges.

In Minnesota, some township bridges are on roads with low usage that have alternative accesses for nearby residents, but local officials are reluctant to remove the bridges.

To identify possible changes to how redundant and low-use bridges are identified and removed in Minnesota, the Local Road Research Board conducted a transportation research synthesis, “Local Bridge Removal Policies and Programs,” that explores how other states make bridge removal decisions.

Fifteen state DOTs responded to a survey about their processes, with varying levels of state oversight identified for bridge removal decisions. Researchers also examined funding and incentives offered by some DOTs to local agencies for bridge removal, as well as criteria for considering bridge removal.

A literature search of bridge design manuals, inspection manuals and bridge programs was also conducted to identify related policies and programs.

Read the TRS to learn more about the various bridge removal policies and procedures in place in Minnesota and other states.

New Study: Experimental Shear Capacity Comparison Between Repaired and Unrepaired Girder Ends

MnDOT Research Services recently executed a contract with the University of Minnesota to begin work on a research study titled “Experimental Shear Capacity Comparison between Repaired and Unrepaired Girder Ends.”

The research will determine if a bridge repair to the TH 169 Nine Mile Creek Bridge near Edina and Minnetonka was sufficient to restore the original strength of a girder end in shear. Load testing to failure will be conducted on two repaired girder ends and two unrepaired girder ends that will be removed from the bridge. Objectives include a comparison of the failure load between the repaired ends and the unrepaired ends. The test results also will provide some answers to questions on whether shotcrete is a structural repair or if it is just a covering over of deterioration.

Carol Shield, professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil Engineering, Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, will serve as the research project’s principal investigator. Paul Pilarski, MnDOT bridge engineer, will serve as the study’s technical liaison.

According to the initial work plan in the contract, the project is scheduled to be completed by the end of March 2018.

Background

Over time, the south bound exterior girder ends on each side of Pier 4 and Pier 26 of the TH 169 Nine Mile Creek Bridge have suffered significant corrosion damage that exposed shear reinforcement, exterior flange prestressing strands, and the sole plate anchorages. Girder ends were repaired in September 201 3 by encasing a 4-foot length of the end using a system of dowels, additional shear reinforcement, and shotcrete. The bridge is scheduled for replacement in 2017.

There is interest in determining if the repair was sufficient to restore the original strength of the girder end in shear. Load testing to failure will be conducted on two repaired girder ends and two unrepaired girder ends that will be removed from the bridge. Objectives include a comparison of the failure load between the repaired ends and the unrepaired ends.

Project Objective

The ability to effectively repair corrosion damaged girder ends extends the useful life of prestressed concrete bridges. These repairs are significantly less expensive than replacing the bridge. Repairing bridges is also beneficial to the traveling public as travel is not interrupted, or interrupted for a significantly shorter time than for bridge replacement. Experimentally demonstrating that the repair restores the girders up to the design strength enhances the safety of the bridge and provides MnDOT with a documented substantiated repair method that can be applied to other bridge girders in a similar state.

Project Scope

When the southbound lanes of the TH 169 Nine Mile Creek Bridge are taken out of service, the contractor will remove four prestressed girders from the structure and deliver the south ends of them to the University’s Department of Civil Engineering Theodore V. Galambos Structures Lab. Two of the girders will have ends that have been repaired. The other two girders will be of the same shear design but will not have been repaired, nor show significant signs of corrosion. Once at the Galambos Laboratory decks will be cast on the girders. One end of each girder will be tested to failure using a setup designed to precipitate a shear failure. Failure loads between the repaired and original undamaged girder ends will be compared. The development of crack patterns under load will also be documented to further understand the behavior of the repair.

Assistance

MnDOT will make arrangements for transportation of the girder ends to the University’s Civil Engineering Building. MnDOT will request that the contractor provide weights of the cut girders prior to delivery. MnDOT will make arrangements with the contractor to take concrete cores from the short end of the cut girders and provide the existing bridge bearing pads. MnDOT will provide calculations for determining the required deck width and concrete strength to avoid a flexural failure.

I-35W ‘Smart Bridge’ Test Site Uses Vibration Data to Detect Bridge Defects

By analyzing vibration data from the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge, MnDOT is working to develop monitoring systems that could detect structural defects early on and ultimately allow engineers to improve bridge designs.

“With data spanning several years, the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge offers a unique opportunity for investigating the environmental effects on a new concrete bridge in a location with weather extremes,” said Lauren Linderman, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering. Linderman served as the research project’s principal investigator.

“This project gets MnDOT closer to using bridge monitoring systems in combination with visual inspection to help detect structural problems before they affect safety or require expensive repairs,” said Benjamin Jilk, Principal Engineer, MnDOT Bridge Office. Jilk served as the research project’s technical liaison.

2017-01-bridge.png
Completed in 2008, the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge has a smart bridge monitoring system that includes hundreds of sensors.

What Was the Need?

In September 2008, the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge was constructed to include a “smart bridge” electronic monitoring system. This system includes more than 500 sensors that continuously provide data on how the concrete structure bends and deforms in response to traffic loads, wind and temperature changes. Transportation agencies are increasingly interested in such systems. As a complement to regular inspections, they can help detect problems early on, before the problems require expensive repairs or lead to catastrophic failure. Smart bridge systems can also help engineers improve future bridge designs.

The smart bridge system on the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge includes accelerometers, which provide data on the way the bridge vibrates in response to various stimuli, including structural damage. Vibration-based monitoring has the advantage of allowing damage to be detected at any location within the bridge rather than only at the specific locations where measuring devices have been placed.

However, it can be difficult to use vibration monitoring to detect damage when vibration is masked by the bridge’s natural response to traffic loads, wind, temperature changes and other environmental conditions. A crack in a bridge girder, for example, can produce a vibration signature similar to one produced by a change in beam length due to variations in temperature or other causes. Consequently, since 2008 MnDOT has conducted a series of projects using data from the St. Anthony Falls Bridge to establish a way to distinguish anomalous data indicating a structural defect or damage from background “noise” associated with other causes.

What Was Our Goal?

This project sought to develop a method for analyzing accelerometer data from the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge that would show how the bridge naturally vibrates due to traffic, wind and other environmental conditions. With this fingerprint of the bridge’s natural vibration, engineers would have a baseline against which to measure anomalies in the data that might indicate structural damage.

What Did We Do?

A large amount of data has been collected from the bridge since its construction. To establish the vibratory fingerprint for the bridge, researchers examined the frequencies and shapes (or modes) of bridge vibration waves. The method they used to identify the data segments needed for the fingerprint was to evaluate the peak amplitude of bridge vibration waves and their root mean square (RMS), a measure of the intensity of free vibration.

The researchers applied this method to the vibration data collected on the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge between April 2010 and July 2015, calculating the average frequencies for four wave modes and determining how they varied with the bridge’s temperature. They also calculated the way frequencies changed with the bridge’s thermal gradients, or variations in temperature between parts of the structure.

What Did We Learn?

The methods developed in this project were successful in establishing a fingerprint for the way the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge vibrates due to environmental conditions, and a way to evaluate changes in vibration over time indicative of structural damage or other factors.

Researchers found that the ratio of peak signal amplitude to RMS in bridge vibrations was a strong indicator of data that should be analyzed, and was evidence of a large excitation followed by free vibration. By themselves, peak amplitude and RMS cannot distinguish between ambient free vibration and forced vibration.

Researchers were able to use this method to successfully analyze 29,333 data segments from the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge. This analysis revealed that as temperature increases, the natural frequency of vibration tends to decrease. The magnitude of this change, they concluded, must be related not just to the elasticity of the bridge but also to other factors such as humidity. However, temperature gradients within the bridge did not appear to have a significant effect on the natural frequencies of the structure.

What’s Next?

MnDOT will continue to collect data from the bridge as it ages to further understand its behavior. This will provide an opportunity to determine how anomalies in vibration data correspond to cracking and other forms of structural distress. Ultimately, MnDOT hopes to use this bridge monitoring system in combination with visual inspection both to detect problems in bridges earlier and to develop better bridge designs. Researchers are also currently working on a follow-up project, Displacement Monitoring of I-35W Bridge with Current Vibration-Based System, to determine the effects of temperature on the bridge’s dynamic and long-term vertical displacements, which can be used to monitor the bridge’s stiffness, connections and foundations.

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This post pertains to Report 2017-01, Feasibility of Vibration-Based Long-Term Bridge Monitoring Using the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge, published January 2017. 

Using drones to inspect bridges

MnDOT is researching how data and images collected by drones, such as the Aeryon Skyranger shown here, could aid bridge inspectors.
MnDOT is researching how data and images collected by drones, such as the Aeryon Skyranger shown here, could aid bridge inspectors.

In recent years, drones made headlines for fighting wars overseas, detecting crop conditions, keeping an eye on power lines and even delivering retail goods.

As the flying electronic devices became easier to use and less expensive, all sorts of individuals, businesses, nonprofit groups and government organizations – including the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) – are exploring ways to use them.

This past summer, MnDOT began researching how to employ these unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to someday help inspect the state’s many bridges.

“That day may still be far off, but our initial project was an encouraging first step,” said Jennifer Zink, MnDOT bridge inspection engineer. “Phase 2 of the project will better provide details as to methods, criteria and cost effectiveness for how to apply drone technology best to bridge inspection.”

Project goal

Using drones could also minimize risks associated with current bridge inspection methods, which include rope systems and special inspection vehicles. (Photo by D.R. Gonzalez, MnDOT)
Using drones could help minimize risks associated with current bridge inspection methods, which include rope systems and special inspection vehicles. (Photo by D.R. Gonzalez, MnDOT)

The research team tested drones this past summer while inspecting four Minnesota bridges (in Chisago County, Olmsted County, Morrison County and near Stillwater) specifically selected for the study after an extensive evaluation and FAA approval.

Zink and her colleagues wanted to investigate whether drones could help MnDOT decrease the rising costs of bridge inspections and collect more detailed information. Drones could also minimize the risks for bridge inspectors, who currently use rope systems and special inspection vehicles to access hard-to-reach areas. Using a drone to gather images could keep inspectors out of harm’s way and inspection vehicles out of active traffic lanes.

“The goal of the project was to study the effectiveness and possibilities of using UAVs to aid in bridge inspection work, typically in gathering images without the use of an under-bridge inspection vehicle and in areas where access is difficult or not safe for an inspector,” Zink said. “There is no substantive guidance in existence for this application of this evolving technology. This initial effort was to gain a better understanding of potential capabilities, processes and planning best practices.”

FAA approval

Before simply launching drones and collecting bridge data, the research team reviewed current FAA rules and applied for the necessary exemptions. Approval was granted, but only for the use of an Aeryon Skyranger drone. Even though exemptions for several models were submitted to the FAA, none were approved in time for the field study.

The team, which included personnel from Collins Engineers Inc. and Unmanned Experts, also worked closely with the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics to plan the project and gain the necessary approvals. The Aeronautics Office recently published an official MnDOT drone policy.

In the air

Once in the air, the drone suitably performed a variety of inspection functions that didn’t require a hands-on physical inspection. Researchers tested the drone’s ability to gather high-quality still images and video footage of bridges. They also collected data from infrared cameras. In addition, the drone provided the ability to capture data needed to construct maps of bridge areas and 3D models of bridge elements.

“The images, including infrared images to detect deck trouble spots, obtained from the drone correlate to the findings in the bridge inspection reports for specific bridge elements,” Zink said.

Missing from the research were images of the underside of bridges. The drone model used in the study wasn’t able to shoot images upward from beneath a bridge, and inspectors identified that as a key feature along with the ability to operate without a GPS signal.

“The drone we used in this project was not completely ideal for an entire gathering of imagery for all bridge inspection elements as it was limited to GPS signal capability,” Zink said. “However, it did give us an idea of what a drone could provide, what the limitations were, and what features we would like to see on newly available UAV models. Unfortunately, our hands were tied with obtaining FAA exemptions only for the particular model used in this project within the funding timeframe.”

Conclusions and recommendations

The project’s final report listed several conclusions, including that drones can be used safely during bridge inspections and that risk to both the inspectors and public is minimal.

“Due to the successful outcome of the initial project, we have a better understanding of the drone capabilities we would like to use during an actual scheduled bridge inspection,” Zink said. “The drone that will be used in Phase 2 is specifically designed for inspection of structures. Several goals exist for the Phase 2 research project, and if we can accomplish them, they will decrease MnDOT’s costs and increase bridge inspection abilities. It could improve inspection data collection for local agencies as well.”

The researchers recently were notified that they received funding for Phase 2 of their project, which is expected to start later this fall.

Related links

Riprap grout protects bridge abutments

Bridges over Minnesota waterways need to be protected from currents by a field of interlocking angular rocks called riprap. Without these rocks along the abutment, moving water could wear away the soil that supports a bridge’s foundation. The faster the water, the larger the riprap must be to provide adequate protection.

While some parts of Minnesota have quarries rich with angular rock, other parts don’t – particularly the northwest and western regions. Bridge projects in those areas sometimes resort to the expensive practice of trucking in stones. Other times field stones are used, but they are less effective and must be replaced more often.

There soon could be a better option thanks to research coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board.

At a few test sites around the state, researchers have used a grout mixture to cement smaller, rounded rocks together at a bridge abutment. Once applied to the rocks, the mixture forms what is called “matrix riprap.” The concept is in use in Europe for many bridge piers, but MnDOT was more interested in learning how it could be used on bridge abutments.

Matrix riprap is currently in use in Minnesota at the following bridges:

  • Highway 23 over the Rum River in Milaca
  • Highway 8 over Lake Lindstrom channel in Lindstrom
  • Prairie Road over Coon Creek in Andover
A MnDOT crew applies grout to rounded rocks at a bridge abutment in Milaca in May 2012. The grout cements the rocks together to form matrix riprap, which has shown to be significantly stronger than conventional riprap.
A MnDOT crew applies grout to rounded rocks at a bridge abutment in Milaca in May 2012. The grout cements the rocks together to form matrix riprap, which has shown to be significantly stronger than conventional riprap.

In May 2012, matrix riprap was placed at the Milaca bridge, which sits alongside a high school. Researchers hoped the use of matrix riprap would prevent vandals from removing the riprap rock and throwing it into the river. According to Nicki Bartelt, a MnDOT assistant waterway engineer, the matrix riprap has proven to be extremely strong and effective.

“Not only is matrix riprap significantly stronger than regular riprap, but it helps prevent vandalism as well,” Bartelt said. “The Milaca installation has been in place for three years now. It looks pretty good and it’s weathering well.”

In the lab, matrix riprap held up extremely well on mechanical pull tests and hydraulic flume tests. In fact, researchers were unable to determine the matrix riprap fail point on many tests, even after applying 10 times the shear stress that regular riprap can withstand. Matrix riprap was tested with both angular and round rock with no change in performance.

A new matrix riprap installation recently went in on the Highway 95 bridge over the Rum River in Cambridge. Later this summer, plans call for an installation on the Highway 60 bridge over the north fork of the Zumbro River in Mazeppa.

“The Highway 60 bridge is being replaced, and the river there has extremely high velocities, so we’re using the matrix riprap instead of regular riprap just because of the size of rocks that would be needed,” Bartelt said.

At least two more installations are planned for 2016. In the future, researchers plan to determine the fail point for matrix riprap. They also hope to study potential environmental effects the grout may have underwater.

MnDOT has also worked with local governments that have tried matrix riprap for themselves. One municipality is trying it as a heavy duty erosion control measure. The concept is catching on outside Minnesota as well.

“We have gotten a lot of inquiries from other states, and we have lent out the spec a lot,” Bartelt said. “Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois are among the states to express interest. We have talked to a lot of people about it, so they tend to use our research.”

Read the research

Using History to Predict Bridge Deck Deterioration

Just how long will it be before a bridge deck needs to be rehabilitated?  Why not look to history to find out?

Researchers have put several decades of MnDOT bridge inspection records to good use by analyzing old bridge deck condition reports to calculate how quickly similar bridge decks will deteriorate.

MnDOT inspects bridges regularly, but had never used this historical data to help determine the rate of bridge deck deterioration and what factors influence it.

“We’re always trying to improve the timing of bridge deck repair projects and improve our understanding of what contributors affect the way our bridge decks deteriorate,” said Dustin Thomas, MnDOT’s South Region Bridge Construction Engineer.

Data-Crunching

From their analysis, researchers created deterioration tables that can be used to better predict the timing and costs of repairs and maintenance.

Researchers looked at the inspection history and construction details of 2,601 bridges to determine the impact of factors such as type of deck reinforcement, depth of reinforcement below the driving surface, traffic levels and bridge location.

Using the inspection data, researchers developed curves that show how long a bridge deck is likely to stay at a given condition before dropping to the next. They developed separate curves for each variable that had a significant impact on deck deterioration rates.

What They Found

Several factors were found to have a notable impact on how quickly bridge decks deteriorate:

  • Decks without epoxy-coated bars built between 1975 and 1989 deteriorate more quickly than other bridge decks.
  • Bridges with less traffic showed slightly slower rates of deterioration than highly traveled bridges.
  • Metro area bridges drop to a condition code of 7 (good) more quickly than bridges in other parts of the state. This may be due to increased chemical deicer usage or because maintenance activities like crack-sealing are more likely to be delayed on larger metro bridges  because of the difficulty accessing middle lanes.
  • When a new deck is installed on an existing bridge, the deck performs like a brand-new bridge and so MnDOT should use the deterioration table for the re-decking year, rather than the year the bridge was originally constructed.

MnDOT plans to incorporate future bridge inspections into the dataset to enhance the predictive value of the deterioration tables.

Related Resources

The impact of overlays on bridge deck deterioration in Minnesota was not clear, but redecked bridges were found to perform similarly as brand-new decks.