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Clarkson, OBPA partner on bridge monitoring

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When a baby is hungry, it cries. When your car is almost out of gas, a light on the dashboard warns you.

Bridges, however, are less obvious with their needs. A bridge has no way tell its owners when and where it needs repair.

The Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority and Clarkson University are joining forces to change that through technology.

“The Authority and Clarkson will work collaboratively on research, technology transfer, education and training projects mutually beneficial for the north country,” said Wade A. Davis, Authority executive director, in a Tuesday news release. “This includes identifying funding for research, technology transfer, education, and training projects.”

Kerop D. Janoyan, an associate professor of environmental and civil engineering at Clarkson, has pioneered a wireless sensor system that can monitor the health of bridges in real time.

“They go in different structural components, whether it be the cables or the superstructure itself in terms of the girders or the deck,” he said. “The system gives you feedback like an electrocardiogram, and it can give you a response periodically or in real time. The bridge is exposed to a lot of different things, traffic or environmental impact like weather, whether it is natural or man-made. It is essentially keeping an eye on the structure.”

The system is relatively new. When the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., collapsed in 2007, Mr. Janoyan and his students were just starting to use the sensors on smaller bridges around the area.

“Back then it was brand new, but it is still new,” he said. “The issue is that it is difficult to deploy partly because there has to be a real partnership between the bridge owners and the engineers.”

With a memorandum of understanding signed between Clarkson and the OBPA, Mr. Janoyan has a partnership that allows his technology to be tested on the OBPA’s Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge.

In addition to warning of potential problems with the bridge, the system could reap fiscal benefits for the Authority, said Mr. Janoyan.

“You can take that data and make it into knowledge for maintenance operations for the bridge,” he said. “You can use your resources more efficiently. It has dovetailed into capitol expenditures. You can make more quantitative decisions.”

In the past, the Authority has relied on periodic inspections on their structures to inform them of problems. The new technology could tell bridge owners of issues as they develop.

“Now, you aren’t just reacting to a problem, you are responding to actual condition and the performance of the structure, as opposed to using pre-determined schedules,” said Mr. Janoyan.

Past practices are also to upgrade the bridge one large portion at a time, but Mr. Janoyan said the new technology would allow bridge owners to better pinpoint problem areas for rehabilitation.

The collaboration has benefits for Mr. Janoyan and his students, as well.

“We get to have a signature bridge to put our sensors on,” he said. “It is not an easy bridge to deploy on. It is a challenging bridge with challenging environmental conditions. It is also a large bridge, and there is a lot of development work to be done. It is basically going to be a lot of R and D (research and development) to go along with what is being done.”

As the north country’s bridges age amid tight budgets at every level of government, developing strategies for when and where repairs are most needed can help to make sure transportation agencies get the most bang for their buck, said Mr. Janoyan.

“The final step is you can tie these things into some kind of economic model and tell what needs to be replaced now, what has six months, and what needs work in the future,” he said.

In the future, the technology could spur business development in the north country.

“There aren’t any companies that are doing this as a business, but there are a lot of companies advertising for this kind of service, so this could spearhead that sort of thing as well,” said Mr. Janoyan.

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