Scientists Recruited to Help Fix Failing U.S. Infrastructures

By Grace V. Jean
The Defense Department often has called on the private sector to help deliver technological solutions to tough military challenges.

Now it’s the civilian agencies that are seeking the industry’s help in technologies that can monitor the nation’s quickly deteriorating civil infrastructure — bridges, highways and water transmission systems.

“We’re talking about a $7 trillion problem that’s being confronted by every municipality and state in the nation,” says Marc Stanley, director of the Technology Innovation Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Under a program sponsored by NIST, managers are seeking sensors that
can detect infrastructure fractures and weaknesses, and engineering
analysis tools to help prioritize repairs. Stanley believes defense
contractors may have potential technologies for these challenging jobs.

For all the billions of dollars that have been spent in the maintenance
and repair of the nation’s complex networks of highways and water
infrastructure, the technologies that engineers and inspectors employ
to examine the concrete and metal are astonishingly obsolete.

The most popular method is to conduct a visual inspection of the
infrastructure. But considering there are four million miles of public
roadways, one million miles of water mains and 600,000 bridges, the
task is a daunting one, even if a corps of a million inspectors could
take on the challenge.

There are currently no cost-effective or field-deployable sensing
systems that can gather continuous data to help determine repair and
renovation schedules or to provide sufficient warning of impending
catastrophic failures, says Stanley. The urgency of the problem was
underscored last summer when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed
and killed 13 people.

While progress has been made in the development of embedded sensors for
new construction, such systems are incompatible with components of the
existing infrastructure.

To address the problem, the Technology Innovation Program is running a
competition that will provide federal funds to small and medium-sized
companies, including institutions of higher education, to develop
solutions. Large companies that earn revenues of $1.63 billion or more
are ineligible for the funding, but they may participate in a joint
venture. Academic organizations may lead projects as long as they
partner with at least one small- to medium-sized business.

“I think universities have potential for making some huge impacts,”
Stanley says.

The funding is not insignificant. A single company can obtain up to $3
million for a maximum of three years of research. A joint venture can
receive up to $9 million for a maximum of five years of research.

Winners will be expected to develop new tools and techniques to monitor
the health of critical national infrastructures and to develop means to
sense the safety, security and integrity of engineered structures in
the nation’s highway, water and waste water systems.

Stanley says proposals are due Sept. 4 and a decision on the awards
will be made shortly after Thanksgiving.

The program is not intended for product development, he warns. Most of
the research will be at the applied science level and a few may be at
the basic research level. “We will only fund up to proof of concept,”
he says.

Stanley expects to distribute approximately nine awards, but the number
could change depending on the applications that are expected to roll in
early this month.

The new program is a boon for the country’s research and development
efforts, says Robert Boege, executive director of the Alliance for
Science and Technology Research in America, a nonprofit organization
that promotes government funding for research. He says there are
growing concerns that the country’s scientific and engineering prowess
is rapidly declining and being superceded by research in other nations.

The Technology Innovation Program is designed to invest in research and
development to promote innovation and to encourage competitiveness in
the United States. In many cases, it will provide funding to help
bridge what’s known as the “valley of death” in the scientific research
world, Boege adds.

“I’m very excited about the program. It’s being met with a lot of
interest,” says Stanley. “I’m getting a lot of feedback from certain
states and a lot of universities who see this as an opportunity to spin
off some really good things that are coming out of professors’

The investments are expected to pay off in the long term and save
taxpayers billions of dollars. The Congressional Budget Office reports
that federal and state governments spent $67 billion on highway
infrastructure and $28 billion on drinking water and waste water
infrastructure in 2004. And the expenditures continue to increase.

Topics: Homeland Security, Disaster Response, Science and Engineering Technology, Homeland Security, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Homeland Security

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