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$2 Trillion in US Infrastructure Repairs Will Spur Nondestructive Evaluation Initiatives

Posted on by Vanessa McMillan

Earlier this year, the White House agreed to spend up to $2 trillion to help fix our nation’s aging infrastructure. While the largest chunk will likely go to roads, bridges, and transit, there is also talk of improvements for wastewater, harbors, and airports, as well as a more efficient energy grid to transmit energy over longer distances. This much-needed, enormous undertaking will not only involve demolishing and rebuilding existing infrastructures, but also assessing structural integrity and repairing structures that may not require drastic measures such as demolition or replacement.

With that in mind, engineering firms, construction companies and manufacturers will likely see a surge in nondestructive testing (NDT) or nondestructive damage evaluation (NDE) over the next few years. NDE consists of a variety of non-invasive inspection techniques used to evaluate material properties, components, or entire structures and assemblies. The techniques can also be utilized to detect, characterize, or measure the presence of damage (e.g. corrosion or cracks). The purpose of NDE is to inspect a component or structure in a safe, reliable, and cost-effective manner – without causing further damage. This contrasts destructive testing, where the part being tested is damaged or destroyed during the inspection process. NDE can be performed during or after manufacture/construction, or even on edifices or structures that are currently in use. NDT inspections can be used to assess the current state of a structure, monitor its ongoing health, and make informed evaluations on its remaining lifespan.

While there are many methods to conduct NDT, such as eddy current, radiography, magnetic particles, etc., a practical alternative to these methods which is generating excitement within the civil, nuclear, and oil and gas industries is distributed strain and temperature sensing using optical fiber-based sensors. There are several factors driving interest in distributed sensing. First, old methods fail to provide the spatial coverage required to locate every conceivable potential damage area, as well as the global response to the presence of localized damage. In other words, the exact location of the fault and the effect it has on the rest of the structure. Distributed sensing provides ultra-fine spatial resolution across tens of meters of sensor length, providing spatially continuous information over large areas. Another reason is the technology’s ability to assess a wide variety of structures and subsystems. Distributed sensing is just as useful detecting cracks on a large building as it is quantifying damage to the interior of a pipe or determining loads on and within concrete and concrete-embedded rebar. Distributed sensors are also able to be installed on, around, and in complex geometries and difficult-to-reach spaces. Finally, with traditional coarse sensor layouts, large-scale structures typically experience a significant amount of damage prior to revealing the existence and location of that damage. With distributed sensing, near continuous information detects failure modes far in advance of any damage.

How is this accomplished? Sensuron’s sensing systems monitor strain and temperature distributions by transforming an optical fiber into a spatially continuous sensor that performs like thousands of strain gauges or thermocouples installed adjacent to one another. The sensors are easier and require far less time to install, and last orders of magnitude longer than traditional technologies. This allows engineers to detect early stages of material degradation related to fatigue, overloading, aging, thermal cycling, and corrosion rapidly, reliably, and without jeopardizing the health or safety of the structure they’re charged with evaluating. This is good news for a nation about to undergo an infrastructure overhaul.

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FIU Bridge Collapse: New OSHA Report Says Key Signs Were Ignored

Posted on by Pierrick Vulliez

It’s been a year and a half since a pedestrian bridge collapsed at Florida International University in March of 2018, killing six people. Recently, OSHA came out with a 115-page report concluding that the tragedy could very well have been prevented. Just hours before the bridge collapsed, its design engineers inspected the deep structural cracks and asserted that they posed no safety concerns. The bridge’s contractor, who was also made aware of safety concerns by its employees on the morning of the collapse, also failed to alert authorities and close the street below the weakening bridge. Now, not only is the engineering firm being implicated, but also the construction management company that built the bridge. Ultimately, where does the fault lie and how could this have been prevented?

Those who study structural health know one thing, a structure’s integrity begins way before construction starts. It begins in the design phase. Before starting a design, the structural engineer must determine the criteria for acceptable performance, including the loads or forces to be resisted. Types of analysis include equilibrium, stress, strain, and elasticity. Once the correct types of tests for that structure have been identified , final design can proceed. Deflections and allowable stresses or ultimate strength must be checked against criteria provided either by the owner or by the governing building codes. That’s when safety at working loads is calculated. Several methods are available, depending on the types of materials used. One method is the Finite Element Model (FEM) or Finite Element Analysis (FEA). FEA is the process of using mathematical models to simulate displacement, stresses, strains, and other parameters to predict the performance and limits of a design. FEA models rely on statistical assumptions to determine how a design will behave in a real-world environment, but reality often does not match the scenario assumed by models. Reasons could include tiny cracks in the material, retrofitting situations, and/or unexpected environmental impacts. This design analysis phase is where the engineering firm that designed the FIU Pedestrian Bridge fell short. In fact, the OSHA report concluded that the cracks were “due to deficient structural design.” The engineers probably performed the necessary tests on their model using traditional resistive strain gauges. They could and should have used distributed sensing technology to validate the efficacy of their design. Unlike traditional strain gauges which report information at critical points in the structure, distributed sensing obtains data along the entire length of the structure. In addition to collecting data at the critical points, it measures between these points. This provides an unprecedented level of insight into the behavior of a structure and allows engineers to perform comprehensive model validation at thousands of discrete points, instead of just a few, identifying just about any source of weakness long before the structure is constructed.

In addition, once construction of the bridge was complete, the managing contractor should have immediately checked the bridge’s structural integrity, as well as instituted a continuous plan to monitor structural health. Once again, the engineers probably used individual resistive strain gauges placed at various critical points along the span of the bridge to test its structural integrity. However, with this discrete point solution for checking, how could they really be sure that the entire length of the bridge was structurally sound? Again, distributed strain sensing for structural health monitoring and safety is key. Forward and safety thinking engineers perform continuous real-time monitoring of critical structures on an ongoing basis. Mechanical strain, stress, loads, temperature, and deflection are just a few of the various engineering parameters that they continue to test and monitor. With distributed sensing, a hair-like optical fiber with spatial resolution down to 1.6mm, leaves almost no point undetected . Multiple fibers can be deployed across a structure to create an effectively weightless network of sensors, capable of continuously monitoring structural health at several thousand locations – thus protecting critical assets and lives.

According to the Miami Herald, the OSHA report confirms what independent experts who examined the bridge design plans and engineering calculations hypothesized: “that the collapse was triggered by sending work crews to re-tension internal support cables at the critical structural connection where the cracks appeared.” What if they were aware of the exact portion of the bridge that held the critical weakness – not just where the cracks appeared? They may have made changes in the structural design of the bridge, they certainly would have built the bridge differently and, with structural health monitoring, they would have had advance notice of critical weaknesses forming and been able to take necessary safety steps to avoid the six deaths that resulted that day.

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Distributed Strain and Temperature Measurement – A Thousand Points of Light

Posted on by Pierrick Vulliez

Organizations that put a premium on safety and reliability have been using test and measurement solutions for years to validate structural integrity (strain), moderate temperature, and gain insight into places not visible with the human eye. Traditionally, strain and temperature were measured using electrical sensing technologies, such as foil (strain) gauges and electrical vibrating wire. In the past few years, new advances in technology have challenged those traditional measurement methods by requiring more stringent accuracy, reliability, and durability, as well as the need to measure on a continuum, rather than being limited to a single sensing point.

Following a UAV prototype crash a few years ago, NASA realized that it had innovated beyond its capability for monitoring and keeping airborne assets safe. A paradigm shift in sensing technology was sorely needed to ensure that such an event would not occur again. Since then, NASA and Sensuron have jointly developed and brought to market a new technology that afforded them the ability to take more accurate measurements in order to validate an aircraft’s structural integrity before it ever leaves the ground. That technology is now commonly known as fiber optic sensing – the gold standard of strain and temperature measurements. But how does this new distributed strain and temperature measurement platform work and what are its uses?

Photo courtesy of NASA

With fiber optic sensing, a single fiber spanning 10 meters can perform the measurements of thousands of individual strain gauges or thermocouples simultaneously. The technology utilizes Optical Frequency Domain Reflectometry (OFDR) to achieve this process. With OFDR, a wavelength source (continuously tunable laser) is used to spectrally interrogate a multitude of sensors (also known as FBG) along a fiber. The reflected light from these sensing elements is then detected, demodulated, and analyzed. Because the optical path difference between the reference reflector and each individual sensor is different, the reflected signal from each sensor is modulated by a unique frequency that is directly dependent upon the grating’s location in the fiber. This technique enables detection from hundreds to thousands of discretized points along a single fiber, allowing it to collect data from a dense array of spatially distributed sensors that is impossible to replicate with other techniques currently available.

Distributed fiber optic sensing can measure continuous strain, temperature, deflection, 3D shape, liquid level and magnetic fields. It is ideally suited for applications that are exposed to harsh environments, require long-range, long-term deployments, and measurements that are in close proximity to noise sources (such as power transformers, electric motors, antennas, etc.). Moreover, it enables new sensing capabilities. One of these is 3D Shape Sensing, which benefits medical applications by guiding devices safely within the human body during invasive procedures.

In the coming months, we’ll explore some exciting applications currently utilizing fiber optic sensing for distributed strain and temperature measurement.
For more information, visit our Resources Page.