Repairing America

Sept. 5, 2014
Last month was quite eventful in the sleepy little village of Amherst, New Hampshire where I reside.

Last month was quite eventful in the sleepy little village of Amherst, New Hampshire where I reside. In its infinite wisdom, the local water company had decided that half the town's water pipes needed to be replaced. To do so, the village was filled with heavy duty earth-moving equipment operated by men in hard-hats.

One night, after a rather tasty salmon dinner, I decided to walk around the village to survey the work in progress. Just before returning home, I looked around to view the construction site one more time before retiring. To my horror, a very large drain located over the street exploded 5ft into the air accompanied by a fountain of high pressure water.

Being the thoughtful person that I am, I rushed over to my neighbor to inform him of the event. Within minutes we both watched as the street was transformed into the Orinoco. Needless to say, police and water officials rushed to the scene, the water was turned off and every house along the street informed that they would not have access to any water for the rest of the night.

After this task was performed, I interviewed the worker from the water company to inform him what I had witnessed. "You think that was bad," he quipped, "did you see the drain in Los Angeles that exploded 20ft into the air?" He actually seemed proud that such an event could possibly happen!

Although in retrospect this seems rather humorous, it reflects the sad state of America's roads, bridges and water and electrical distribution systems. While repairing and replacing these may cost billions of dollars, such tasks may be more easily performed thanks to innovations in automated vision inspection systems.

Unmanned pipe crawlers employing visible and ultrasonic imaging, for example, can locate defects due to corrosion and wear while the pipe is transporting fluids. High-speed cameras and structured laser light projectors integrated into pavement inspection systems can generate two and three-dimensional images of road surfaces at high-speed. Bridge inspection, currently performed manually by counting the number of cracks, measuring their lengths and widths can also be performed automatically and more reliably by machine vision systems.

While the cost of repairing America's infrastructure will be expensive, automated vision systems, if deployed, will ensure that the task of inspecting and monitoring roadways, bridges, electrical and water distribution systems will be more effective and efficient than manual methods. Perhaps if someone in my little village would have realized this, my neighbor would not still be pumping out his basement.

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