The Fern Hollow Bridge after its collapse.
Image: National Transportation Safety Board, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed in January 2022. About 10 people were injured.

In January, President Joe Biden visited Pittsburgh to discuss America’s crumbling infrastructure. That same morning, the city’s Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed. Investigations into the structural components of the bridge are ongoing, and it could take more than a year to determine the cause of the collapse.

How many Fern Hollow Bridges are out there waiting to happen? The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) estimates that as many as 220,000 bridges, 36% of total American bridges, need to be repaired, and that 79,500 need to be replaced.

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“Most U.S. cities are still using old technologies created a century ago–like the traffic signal, water/sewer systems and streetlights–and 43 percent of our nation’s public roadways are in poor or mediocre condition,” said Joel Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network. “Pittsburgh is the city of bridges—more bridges than any other U.S. city. We are also a city that has deteriorating infrastructure. We have old bridges, water systems and roads. Repair and replacement of national infrastructure has been underfunded.”

Given the enormity of an infrastructure rebuild, new methods need to be applied to the task. One promising technology is robotics.

“Robots can help improve the speed, quality and timeliness of infrastructure engineering,” Reed said. “By utilizing robots that can climb pipelines, analyze bridges and capture insights via drone technologies, we can effectively address infrastructure repair.”

Reed said that in Pittsburgh alone, there were companies working across 12 different core industry verticals, including construction, industrial inspection, municipal inspection, logistics, manufacturing, etc. These organizations were using intelligent machines like robots to affect infrastructure repairs and improvements.

Investing in robots is expensive. The cost can range from a few thousand dollars per robot to tens of thousands of dollars per robot for more complex machines to millions of dollars per robot for vertically integrated, enterprise-wide solutions.

Companies considering investment in robots initially weigh the value of the technology against their normal investment payback timelines of on to three years, but in some cases, companies may go longer with their payback and ROI investments. They start taking into account the severity of the global labor shortage, which is also costing them money.

There is also a new alternative for financing and obtaining robotics: RAAS, or robotics-as-a-service vendors. These companies offer financing arrangements that help buyers avoid the large, upfront capital cost of acquiring expensive hardware by offering usage or pricing on monthly, subscription or on a unit-based arrangement.

Robots are already widely deployed in the Pittsburgh area, Reed said.

“We see robots in the air, on roads and underground; in hospitals, grocery stores, warehouses and airports; and on vertical urban farms producing locally grown food,” he said. “Robots bring greater precision. They capture a wider array of data that is being used to make operations more efficient, and they create entirely new applications and/or offer predictive analytical solutions that help create autonomous business practices.”

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In infrastructure repair, robots will be working under roads and performing automated inspections of water and sewer pipes. This eliminates the need for crews to dig up roads and will eliminate unnecessary closures or traffic delays on streets.

The streets themselves might also be constructed by road construction bots.

To get ready for robots, companies must invest in training so that humans working alongside robots can effectively work with them in newly designed work processes. There must also be investments in IT infrastructure integration so robots can be integrated into corporate work processes and not functioning in a standalone mode.

“Workforce training and development is a critical need,” Reed said. “There will be a greater demand for “adaptive” skill–or the need to solve problems, react to operating conditions and understand systems. And while some companies work to develop standalone solutions that require little integration, the best returns on investment come from either tightly integrating a solution into an existing workflow or in completely reinventing business workflows to create new value, services and offerings.”

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