NASA Satellite Used to Detect Flaws in Roads and Bridges

A NASA tool set to launch in 2022 allows engineers to analyze satellite data – such as images of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, Italy, prior to its August 2018 collapse – in order to detect which infrastructure is at risk of collapsing or in need of repair. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Google)

(CN) – NASA scientists said Tuesday that a new satellite data analysis tool will allow engineers to detect whether infrastructure like bridges and roads has sustained structural damage or is at risk of collapsing.

Engineers help governments determine how much to spend on inspection and maintenance programs in order to direct limited resources toward maintaining roads, bridges and other critical infrastructure.

Scientists led by Pietro Milillo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement Tuesday that a tool called synthetic aperture radar (SAR) will help identify subtle changes overtime in structures that mark them as at risk or in need of repair.

“We can’t solve the entire problem of structural safety, but we can add a new tool to the standard procedures to better support maintenance considerations,” Milillo said.

A view of the Morandi highway bridge in Genoa, northern Italy, on Aug. 15, 2018, after it collapsed a day earlier during a sudden and violent storm. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Using data from several satellites, Milillo’s team used SAR to analyze structural changes to the Morandi Bridge near Genoa, Italy. The bridge collapsed in August 2018, killing dozens of people.

The team, with support from scientists at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and the Italian Space Agency, detected millimeter-size changes to the bridge between 2003 and the time of collapse. They foun an area near the bridge’s collapsed pier showed signs of design failure as early as 2015, while more significant signs of structural changes could be seen in images taken between March 2017 and August 2018.

Scientists said the analysis indicated part of the bridge may have become structurally unsound.

“This is about developing a new technique that can assist in the characterization of the health of bridges and other infrastructure,” Millilo said. “We couldn’t have forecast this particular collapse because standard assessment techniques available at the time couldn’t detect what we can see now.”

By 2022, when the tool is launched, NASA believes SAR will enable scientists to examine structural stability of bridges around the world on a weekly basis.

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