Bridge Safety Project
Students in UNM's Dept. of Civil Engineering perform preliminary testing for the railroad bridge safety project.

Two professors in the Department of Civil Engineering at The University of New Mexico have received nearly $100,000 from the National Academy of Sciences that will fund work to make railroad bridges safer through the use of drones and lasers.

Fernando Moreu, assistant professor of civil engineering, and Mahmoud Taha, professor and chair of civil engineering, have been awarded the National Academy of Sciences Transportation Research board IDEA Award.

Their project, titled "Railroad Bridge Inspections For Replacement Prioritization Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) with 3D Laser Scanning Capabilities," will use the small and mobile technologies to assess and test the safety of bridges.

Moreu said the advantage of using UAVs and lasers is that this technology can assess the safety of critical structures under traffic, collecting information that might otherwise not be collected because bridge displacements are difficult to collect. It could yield great potential for bridge safety, he said.

"This project will test the feasibility of integrating UAVs and laser technologies to assess the structural responses of railroad bridges under revenue service traffic, which is the top research priority, according to the railroad bridge engineering community in U.S.," Moreu said. "We will collect a lot of data to quantify the bridge performance as related to serviceability of operations, thus both catching problems that may not have been caught by visual inspections, increasing safety, and saving money on unneeded repairs."

CN Railway is a partner and will provide input throughout the project. The end result will include a feasibility and cost analysis of using and developing UAVs and laser technologies for railroad bridge inspections and assessment for multiple spans and multiple bridges within a given territory. The main focus of the research is freight traffic and transportation, but the application is expected to assist any type of railroad operations, including passenger and intercity passenger rail, Moreu said.

The project is initially funded for a year, but Moreu is hoping that the results of the first year will attract additional years of support to help railroad industries adopt this research into their operations.

"We are working closely with those who will be the ones commercializing and adopting this application into their day-to-day operations," Moreu said. "UNM will provide railroads with objective information to inform their decisions about infrastructure serviceability."

Collaborators on the project, along with CN Railway, are the Transportation Technology Center Inc. of the Association of American Railroads; Los Alamos National Laboratory; and Rafael Fierro, director of the Multi-Agent, Robotics, and Heterogeneous Systems Lab (MARHES) and professor in the UNM Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.