Roads and railways are a bit like Jenga: Bits and pieces are gradually removed, but one piece can unexpectedly cause the whole thing to collapse. That's where McCormick's Infrastructure Technology Institute comes in. The organization can detect faults and damage in America's infrastructure before all the metaphorical blocks tumble down.
The ITI, a multi-disciplinary center under the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, “develops advanced methods for monitoring infrastructure condition and performance to assist owners and operators with critical decisions concerning structural integrity, renewal, and rehabilitation.”
Research Engineer David Kosnik (MEAS ‘99) describes it as applying research and technology in ways that improve the country’s transportation infrastructure. That includes all bridges, railroads, highways or interstates, boats and pipelines in the United States. Yes, the government includes pipelines as part of the country’s transportation infrastructure.
With a US Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration grant, ITI coordinates with transportation agencies across the country. But what does an Evanston-based research group have that could affect infrastructure all over the US? Continuous remote structural health monitoring.
“We pick out some piece of infrastructure that has a given problem and work with the infrastructure owner to develop a way to make measurements that will help identify, diagnose and solve the problem,” Kosnik says.
By looking at the data collected by sensors, ITI is able to establish the patterns individual bridges and rails and roads follow. There is only concern when data falls outside of these patterns.
At present, ITI is actively collecting information on several projects, which range from bridges in California to part of Ohio’s I-70 and excavations near pipelines under Chicago.
Abby Christman, a McCormick sophomore who works with ITI, was able to participate in one of these projects over Spring Break. Along with a team of research engineers, graduate students and other undergrads, Christman assisted in setting up sensors under a bridge set over a rail line in New York.
“We had to work from 2 to 4 a.m. to put the wiring in,” Christman said. “They gave us very restricted times. It was pretty intense, but a great experience.”
Kosnik says the sensors function as measuring tools. In order to figure out what kind of load infrastructure is under, ITI measures strain.
“Really, it refers to the tiny changes in length of a piece of material as it’s being stressed, but we can use it as a representation of load. Essentially, this is load being transferred,” Kosnik says.
The work that ITI conducts not only complements infrastructure inspections, it is also able to detect faults that visual inspections cannot.
“You go out and look for cracks, damaged concrete. And then step two is – if you think something looks funny – you hit it with a hammer,” Kosnik says. “That system is very effective, it works very well, but there are some things that you can’t see.”
The apparent endgame for all of ITI’s projects is complete replacement of all transportation infrastructure with stronger, longer-lasting pieces. However, resources (read: money) aren't always plentiful, so it also falls on ITI to determine which pieces of infrastructure need alteration most. Kosnik refers to this as asset management. “You can’t replace them all and of course you can’t close all these bridges to replace them,” he says. By monitoring infrastructure, ITI is able to determine which pieces of infrastructure need refits or replacements immediately.
ITI does a decent amount of work in the Windy City as well. With all the transportation infrastructure available – from Metra and El rails to buses and bridges – the institute coordinates with the Chicago Transit Authority to make Chicago (and Evanston by extension) a safer place for transit.
“Anything that has to do with surface transportation, anything that doesn’t have to do with flying,” Kosnik says. “Anything that involves moving stuff along the surface of the Earth in the United States is fair game for us.”