America’s infrastructure is ageing; does tech hold the cure?

By Shelley Copsey, CEO of FYLD

Baltimore’s broken bridge 

On March 26th 2024, Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, a busy bridge built over the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States (U.S.), and the third longest of any bridge of its type in the world, was struck by a container ship.

Its collapse shocked the world and led to heartbreak when six human fatalities were reported.

It is a tragedy, and one that raises questions around the state of America’s key infrastructure, its vulnerabilities, and how maintenance is planned and prioritised. Ultimately, it raises the question; could this catastrophe have been avoided?

America has had the strongest post-pandemic economic recovery of all G7 nations, according to the Financial Times. In fact, I noted that annual inflation has fallen 6% points from its summer 2022 peak, and the unemployment rate remains near record lows, even as interest rates have risen. To top it off, the S&P 500 has soared over the past 12 months.

However, the economic damage caused by the collapse of the bridge is extensive. This is because the ruins of the bridge have blocked the entrance to Baltimore port, the 17th largest port in America and an important transport artery for the movement of coal, automotive vehicles, and construction machinery. At the date of writing this, the authorities continue to remove debris from the site. 

Many experts have warned that the bridge collapse will impact American inflation numbers in the coming months as it is expected to take months to unblock.

The long road to repair

Back in 2021, President Biden declared a $2.3trillion plan which promised to ‘rebuild infrastructure and reshape the economy’. The proposal set out plans to fix 20,000 miles of road and 10,000 bridges. Quite separately, even at a State level, huge budgets are being raised for critical infrastructure – The state of  Texas has $8.76 billion in drinking water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. From water scarcity, ageing infrastructure, pollution, climate change impacts, and the need for sustainable management practices to meet growing demand. Texas lost an estimated 136 billion gallons of water in 2020 and 132 billion gallons of water in 2021, according to water-loss audit data submitted by public water suppliers.

The news was welcomed as concerns had already been growing over the state of America’s key infrastructure following reports that much of it has fallen into disrepair.

One report published by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) in 2022 found that 36% of U.S. bridges need repair work, 43,500 bridges are deemed to be in poor condition, and that 78,800 bridges should be replaced altogether.

Interestingly, the report calculated that at the current pace of maintenance in the U.S., it would take nearly 30 years to repair all the bridges in poor condition. This suggests key infrastructure in the U.S. could be left to deteriorate for decades, creating the potential for far more dangerous outcomes for the public and those who work at ports and in the seas.

It also raises the question; is a $2.3trillion investment really enough? And, how can America, despite it being the world’s largest economy, afford to inject any more budget when there are so many other competing priorities for the nation.

Learning from past tragedies 

Another study conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2021 found that 57% of infrastructure established in the U.S. is threatened by natural hazards. This is a significant figure and does not account for weaknesses in the country’s key infrastructure that could be targeted by those with malicious intentions such as extremist, terrorist groups.

The United States has already felt the economic impact of some catastrophic natural events. This includes the more than 50 individual failures of the levees and flood walls that protected New Orleans, Louisiana, which occurred in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. The failures in the structure led to a high death toll, many residents left homeless and more than 800,000 houses destroyed or damaged. This resulted in costs of more than $160billion.

Fast forward 13 years, and a pedestrian bridge located in Florida collapsed while under construction. The collapse resulted in six deaths, 10 injuries, and eight vehicles being crushed. Following various reports spanning many years after the disaster, it was concluded that this was far from a natural disaster but one of incompetence. The bridge engineers failed to recognise the collapse was imminent as their maintenance procedures were not fit-for-purpose.

Another similar example is the collapse of the Interstate 95 in Philadelphia in June 2023, one of the busiest interstates in the region. The incident occurred when a truck carrying an oil tanker crashed, creating an inferno which compromised the steel girders that supported the bridge.

The Governor shortly after announced a plan to reconstruct the collapsed overpass using different, more fitting materials to ensure its long-term reliability and safety. Unfortunately, the maintenance was too late for the person who lost their life on the day of the tragic incident.

Biden’s $2.3 trillion pledge to improve its crumbling infrastructure is commendable, however far will this budget really go? And, how will the government decide where it is best spent in order to prioritise the assets that require the most attention to mitigate future health and safety risks?

Tech can bridge the gap 

The private sector has invested heavily in revolutionising the way that critical maintenance of key infrastructure is planned and carried out in recent years. Technology has been at the centre of this transformation, from artificial intelligence to digital twins, and drones.

However,  the public sector has been very slow to adopt new technologies and so the maintenance of key assets such as roads, bridges and electrical towers, has yet to be streamlined through digitalisation in many cases. Where there have been investments made, the results have failed to meet their objectives whether that be quality or safety levels.

But it is not just the public sector that needs to advance at pace.  Some areas of American industry have even been slow to embrace technology. A study in 2018 found that only 53% of manufacturing plants used a computerised maintenance management system to monitor vital equipment, and almost half (44%) said they still tracked maintenance using pencil and paper.

At FYLD we have seen the positive impact that technology has on critical maintenance first-hand. Applications underpinned by basic video footage and pictures from smart cameras, layered with artificial intelligence and machine learning for example eliminate the need for time-consuming paperwork, removing some of the risk of ‘human error’, and drastically reducing safety incidents.

Applications like these can speed up maintenance and make budgets stretch a lot further. For example, FYLD removes the need for a manager to find the time to visit a site in-person as field workers can share site conditions in real-time digitally. Managers can then review them remotely, sign off risk assessments and suggest any controls, so work can commence promptly. They can coach remotely, and with real-time AI analysis of what is going on across their various job sites, they can prioritise their attention, focusing it where it counts.

With recent reports suggesting that maintenance on the already crumbling infrastructure in the U.S. could take at least three decades to complete, time savings like these could have a significant impact on efficiency, project costs in an economic environment of high inflation and a drastic reduction in health and safety risk.

Our revolutionary application highlights to fieldworkers previous jobs within the vicinity of their site to help them understand conditions and known issues in the area, mitigating any potential safety risks ahead of commencing their work.

When it comes to past catastrophic incidents, such as the Florida bridge collapse, automation plays a key role in reducing health and safety risk. The incident, and many others worldwide, is a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities surrounding key infrastructure in public places when maintenance relies on human intervention, and manual data management and communication of key information.

Imagine if instead a modern technology platform was used to manage the data around the bridge’s condition over time and its deterioration was flagged as an urgent remedial issue, the technology would use that data to create automated risk alerts sent to field workers in the vicinity of the bridge as soon as the risk of collision was identified. This could have seen the necessary information communicated to the right people at the right time in order to take action, helping to avoid disaster.

It is clear we have reached a tipping point; the decline of America’s critical infrastructure could have dire consequences if the private and public sector fail to overhaul manual processes and embrace digitisation.

From buckling bridges to decaying dams and levees, the problem of ageing infrastructure in the U.S. is not only an economic consideration, but a crisis for long-term growth and public health and safety. Technology has however got the answer, and it could bridge the maintenance and funding gap.