Robots take center stage in rebuilding and repairing infrastructure

More than a third of America’s bridges need fixing, not to mention other critical infrastructure. This is a stupendous task for which robots are well suited for hazardous work.

Image: National Transportation Safety Board, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed in January 2022. About ten people were injured.

In January, President Joe Biden traveled to Pittsburgh to discuss the collapse of America’s infrastructure. That same morning, the city Fern Hollow Bridge Collapsed. Investigations into the structural components of the bridge are ongoing and it may take more than a year to determine the cause of the collapse.

How many Fern Hollow bridges are waiting for? The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) estimates that up to 220,000 bridges, 36% of total US bridges, need to be repairedand that 79,500 need to be replaced.

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“Most American cities still use old technology created a century ago – like traffic lights, water/sewer systems, and streetlights – and 43% of our nation’s public roads are in poor condition. or in poor condition,” said Joel Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network. “Pittsburgh is the city of bridges – more bridges than any other American city. We are also a city whose infrastructure is deteriorating. We have old bridges, waterworks and roads. The repair and replacement of national infrastructure has been underfunded.

Given the enormity of an infrastructure rebuild, new methods must be applied to the task. One promising technology is robotics.

“Robots can help improve the speed, quality and timeliness of infrastructure engineering,” Reed said. “By using robots that can climb pipelines, scan bridges, and capture information via drone technologies, we can efficiently deal with infrastructure repair.”

Reed said that in Pittsburgh alone there were companies working in 12 different core verticals, including construction, industrial inspection, municipal inspection, logistics, manufacturing, and more. These organizations used intelligent machines like robots to perform infrastructure repairs and improvements.

Investing in robots is expensive. The cost can range from a few thousand dollars per robot to tens of thousands of dollars per robot for more complex machines to millions of dollars per robot for enterprise-scale vertically integrated solutions.

Companies considering investing in robots initially assess the value of the technology against their normal investment payback periods of up to three years, but in some cases companies can extend their payback and return on investment. They are beginning to take into account the seriousness of the global labor shortage, which is also costing them money.

There is also a new alternative for financing and obtaining robotics: RAAS, or robotics vendors as a service. These companies offer financing agreements that help buyers avoid the high upfront cost of acquiring expensive hardware by offering monthly, subscription, or per-unit usage or pricing.

The robots are already widely deployed in the Pittsburgh area, Reed said.

“We see robots in the air, on roads and underground; in hospitals, grocery stores, warehouses and airports; and in vertical urban farms producing locally grown food,” he said. “Robots provide greater precision. They capture a wider range of data that is used to make operations more efficient, and they create entirely new applications and/or offer predictive analytics solutions that help create empowered business practices.

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In infrastructure repair, robots will work under roads and perform automated inspections of water and sewer pipes. This eliminates the need for crews to dig out roads and will eliminate unnecessary closures or traffic delays on streets.

The streets themselves can also be built by road construction robots.

To prepare for robots, companies need to invest in training so that humans working alongside robots can work effectively with them in newly designed work processes. There must also be investments in the integration of the IT infrastructure so that the robots can be integrated into the company’s work processes and do not operate in autonomous mode.

“Workforce training and development is a critical need,” Reed said. “There will be a greater demand for ‘adaptive’ skills – or the need to solve problems, react to operating conditions and understand systems. And while some companies strive to develop self-contained solutions that require little integration, the greatest returns on investment come from either tightly integrating a solution into an existing workflow, or completely reinventing business workflows to create new values, services and offerings.