More than a third of US bridges need repair, not to mention other critical infrastructure. It is a wondrous task for which robots are well suited for the dangerous work.
In January, President Joe Biden visited Pittsburgh to discuss America’s crumbling infrastructure. That same morning, the city Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed† Research into the bridge’s structural components is ongoing and it could take more than a year to determine the cause of the collapse.
How many Fern Hollow Bridges are waiting to happen? The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) estimates that a whopping 220,000 bridges, 36% of total US bridges, need repairand those 79,500 need to be replaced.
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“Most cities in the U.S. still use old technologies created a century ago—such as traffic lights, water/sewer systems, and street lighting—and 43 percent of our nation’s public roads are in poor or mediocre 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 with a deteriorating infrastructure. We have old bridges, water systems and roads. Repair and replacement of national infrastructure is underfunded.”
Given the sheer magnitude of infrastructure rebuilding, new methods must be applied to the task. A promising technology is robotics†
“Robots can help improve the speed, quality and timeliness of infrastructure engineering,” Reed says. “By using robots that can climb pipelines, analyze bridges and capture insights through drone technologies, we can tackle infrastructure repair effectively.”
Reed said that in Pittsburgh alone, companies were operating in 12 different core industries, including construction, industrial inspection, municipal inspection, logistics, manufacturing, etc. These organizations used intelligent machines such as robots to influence repairs and improvements to infrastructure.
Investing in robots is expensive. Costs 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 vertically integrated, enterprise-wide solutions.
Companies considering investing in robots initially weigh the value of the technology against their normal return on investment of up to three years, but in some cases, companies can extend their payback and ROI investments for longer. They are beginning to consider the seriousness of the global labor shortage, which is also costing them money.
There is also a new alternative for financing and acquiring robotics: RAAS, or robotics-as-a-service vendors. These companies offer financing arrangements that help buyers avoid the high upfront capital cost of purchasing expensive hardware by offering usage or pricing on a monthly, subscription or unit agreement basis.
Robots are already widely deployed in the Pittsburgh area, Reed said.
“We see robots in the air, on roads and underground; in hospitals, supermarkets, warehouses and airports; and on urban vertical farms that produce locally grown food,” he said. “Robots provide more precision. They capture a wider range of data that is used to make operations more efficient, and they create entirely new applications and/or provide predictive analytics solutions that help create autonomous business practices.”
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When repairing infrastructure, robots will work under roads and perform automated inspections of water and sewer lines. This eliminates the need for crews to excavate roads and avoids unnecessary road closures or traffic delays.
The streets themselves can also be constructed by road building bots.
To be ready for robots, companies need to invest in training so that people who work alongside robots can work with them effectively in newly designed work processes. Investments also need to be made in integrating the IT infrastructure so that robots can be integrated into business work processes and not function on their own.
“Staff training and development is a critical need,” said Reed. “There will be a greater demand for ‘adaptive’ skills – or the need to solve problems, respond to business conditions and understand systems. And while some companies are developing stand-alone solutions that require little integration, The best return on investment comes from tightly integrating a solution into an existing workflow or completely reinventing business workflows to create new value, services and offerings.”