We all depend on the reliable operation of infrastructure every day. Our infrastructure is the silent foundation for our economic development, supply chains, energy and water systems, transportation, and much more.
However, most of us don’t think about the structural health of the built world until an issue arises, like power outages, a bridge collapsing, or dangerous refinery explosions. Our infrastructure systems are essential in keeping the world running. They must be reliable, operational, and safe—today and in the future.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) releases the Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. It details the condition and performance of the nation’s infrastructure across 17 different categories. In the most recent report, America’s infrastructure scored a C- rating, leaving significant room for improvement.
In this blog, discover key learnings from the report card and how we can improve the rating for a safer, stronger, and more resilient future.
A Closer Look at Current Infrastructure Conditions
Much of the world’s infrastructure is constructed from steel or concrete—materials that corrode and weaken over time. As our critical infrastructure ages, it becomes increasingly prone to failure due to mechanical integrity issues. It is common for these structures to operate well beyond their forecasted useful life, with expectations to support record-high demand levels.
The report card states that components of the nation’s energy grid, which includes the infrastructure involved in power generation, transmission, and distribution, are over a century old—operating far past their 50-year life expectancy. Severe weather conditions and society’s expectation for seamless, “always on” electricity strain our aging power grids tremendously.
Based on the current conditions, the nation’s energy infrastructure was given a C- rating. The report states that power outages cost the United States economy $28 billion to $169 billion annually. Power grid failures are costly and a threat to businesses unable to keep the lights on. They can also be extremely dangerous for people in residential areas, hospitals, and nursing homes.
Another report card category that needs significant improvement is the nation’s dams, which received a D rating. These structures serve various purposes that support daily needs, including water storage, hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, flood control, and more.
Each of the nation’s 91,000 dams is classified by its hazard potential. The report states that 15,600 dams in the U.S. are classified as high-hazard structures, meaning that a failure is anticipated to cause a loss of life. The number of deficient high-hazard potential dams exceeds 2,300. With the average age of U.S. dams being 57 years old, the risk of failure only increases over time as these structures continue to age, putting thousands of lives in danger.
Our interconnected infrastructure networks and systems drive economic growth, safety, and security. Simultaneously, these complex systems continue to age, degrade, and fail. If we don’t change how we protect and maintain these critical assets, they will crumble and cause devastating consequences.
Raising the Grade Through Innovative Solutions
The cause for infrastructure failures can frequently be traced to damage mechanisms, like corrosion or erosion. These damages often go entirely unnoticed due to being below the material’s surface or in hard-to-view locations.
Across many infrastructure sectors, there are mandatory inspection and compliance standards that must be met in an attempt to address structural issues and maintain safe operations. However, when using traditional inspection methods to satisfy these requirements, asset owners can often be left with extensive gaps in data coverage and quality.
The report card identified that several infrastructure sectors have scarce or unreliable data, indicating a need for solutions that provide robust data insights into asset conditions. The report also noted that maintenance backlogs remain an issue, with many sectors unclear on what repairs to prioritize first.
Due to their manual, subjective processes, traditional inspection methods are insufficient, dangerous, and unreliable. Visual inspections only address issues visible to the eye, often overlooking damage occurring below the surface. Manual ultrasonic testing methods collect data from various points of an asset and provide sparse coverage. With significant gaps between data collection locations, the full extent of the damage may not be accurately identified or missed entirely.
Visual and manual inspections are subject to an inspector’s skill level and experience, causing possible inconsistencies in reporting. Not only do these traditional methods lack data quality, but they are extremely time consuming and often dangerous to conduct.
Alternatively, automated robotic solutions and AI-powered software platforms are modernizing how we protect and maintain infrastructure. Automated ultrasonic inspection robots collect high-quality, objective, full-coverage data about the asset. Robots can access hazardous spaces while assets remain in production, making inspections safer while reducing operational downtime. These robots can detect a full spectrum of damage mechanisms, collecting 1,000x more data up to 10x faster than conventional methods.
Data software platforms translate the data collected by the robots into comprehensive maps, models, and digital twins, providing current and predictive insights into an asset’s health to inform fast, confident decision making. Easy to understand, accurate data visualizations help triage maintenance plans and infrastructure investments to prioritize projects that improve the safety and security of infrastructure systems. Reliable data also helps pinpoint targeted repairs to extend the life cycles of assets. Instead of spending millions of dollars and sacrificing valuable production time to completely replace an asset experiencing issues, the high-quality data identifies precise locations where repairs can be made.
Access to actionable, accurate, and easy-to-understand data reduces risks and takes the guesswork out of maintenance. Objective, accurate data gives asset owners better visibility and control of their operations, enabling facilities to set accurate benchmarks, monitor progression, and effectively prioritize, budget, procure, and plan for maintenance work. Leveraging best-in-class technologies provides new views into asset health that empower decisive action for safer, more reliable operations.
Take a Modernized Approach for Resilient Infrastructure
Unfortunately, we all pay the price when infrastructure fails. Outages and asset failures typically translate into price spikes that trickle down from manufacturers and producers to the general public. If action isn’t taken to improve how we maintain and protect our infrastructure, America’s infrastructure bill will cost the average American household $3,300 a year by 2039.
The key to building resilience is embracing new, tech-forward approaches that streamline asset management and safely extend asset life cycles. The more we understand about our infrastructure through actionable, accurate data insights and visualizations, the better we can maintain and monitor it. Sophisticated robotics, data analytics, and digital twin technologies are unlocking new possibilities. They will increasingly play a critical role in a secure future—security in terms of consistent access to electricity, fuel, water, and daily resources.
State and local governments are making progress, but there is still a lot of work to do. A modernized, data-led approach to understanding our built world will drive efficiencies and safety to raise our infrastructure grade and build a stronger foundation for tomorrow.