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Infrastructure Technology Institute

The ITI REG: Past, Present, and Future

The REG working on the US 2 Bridge between Hurley, Wisconsin and Ironwood, Michigan

Northwestern University provides an exceptional environment for interdisciplinary studies. Interdisciplinary research in transportation has been an area of particuclar strength for many years. Four transportation research units operate within Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, all pursuing advancement of the quality and sustainability of transportation infrastructure in the United States, and each with its own focus area and distinct expertise. These are the Center for Commercialization of Innovative Transportation Technology, the Northwestern University Transportation Center, the Center for Public Safety, and the Infrastructure Technology Institute.

For 18 years, ITI has utilized its U.S. Department of Transportation grants for research with the goal of protecting and improving the condition, capacity, and performance of the nation’s highway, rail, and mass transit infrastructure systems. The Institute has distinguished itself among its companion centers at Northwestern by creating its own Research Engineering Group (REG) to specialize in the development and deployment of advanced technologies to assess the condition of transportation infrastructure.

One of ITI’s principal research areas is structural health monitoring (SHM) using innovative sensors, sophisticated data collection equipment, and advanced telecommunication technology. Information about infrastructure condition is collected for analysis and use by infrastructure managers to support operation and management decisions, and in particular to guide the evaluation of rehabilitation projects. The nature of this work makes collaborating with infrastructure agencies crucial to the research of the REG, which is continually seeking deployment partners for novel research.

At present, the REG is the busiest it has ever been, conducting several active projects in various stages of progression from lab testing and design to field deployment of SHM systems and active research with their data streams. Composed of three full-time research engineers and one clinical professor of civil engineering, the REG possesses a unique blend of complementary abilities that facilitate the innovative solutions and methods that are the pride of the group and ITI.


In Their Own Words

Dan Marron
Chief Research Engineer
B.S. in Physics, benedictine university
Master of project Management, Northwestern university: in progress.
Licensed Professional Engineer in Illinois

What special skill set do you bring to the REG?

I like to look at research projects from an overall perspective – designing the system and examining different parts of the problem with a view to come up with a creative or unique solution tailored to that project. Sometimes it is tempting to get caught up in the interesting technical details of the work. I always strive to keep the main goal of the research in mind to ensure that the end product will provide a net benefit to our transportation infrastructure.

About which active project are you most excited?

I think the wireless sensor project (p.10) has the highest potential for
commercialization and will be of great utility to transportation
officials. The increased inspection frequency required for structures
with cracked members is a burden to the already overextended inspectors.
This technology has the potential to allow more precise and nearly
continuous monitoring of cracks without the need for a site visit to
perform an arm’s-length inspection.

What would you like the REG to do more of in the future?

I’d like to see the REG expand and take on even larger projects. We currently have more ideas than time or staff to explore them. The original concept for the REG was for a team working in the field alongside practitioners. I feel that this unique arrangement has been successful and that the benefits will scale up as the group grows.

Mat Kotowsky
Research Engineer
B.S. in Computer Engineering,
university of illinois at Urbana-Champaign
M.S. in Civil Engineering,
northwestern university
Licensed Professional Engineer in Illinois

What special skill set do you bring to the REG?

Although the REG is largely focused on civil engineering applications, my undergraduate background is in electrical and computer engineering. My area of expertise in REG is the communication between and automation of the various components in our SHM systems. I make combinations of technologies work together and communicate with each other that were not originally designed to do so. During the design of a new SHM system, I integrate the hardware and software to make the system run, writing customized software when necessary. After a system has been deployed in the field, I’m responsible for making sure its data arrives reliably back to the lab and converting those data into a format that can be published on the Web.

Which active project are you most excited about?

I’m most excited about the custom crack propagation sensors and their integration with wireless sensor technology (p.10) – we have performed successful laboratory testing and we’ll soon be deploying this on a bridge with active cracking.

How is the REG different from others who do SHM work?

Some versions of SHM are what we consider to be “global” or “holistic” systems. Often times, SHM implies throwing sensors on a structure without trying to address a specific problem or answer a specific question. The REG stays away from this type of SHM because we believe that if you don’t know what question you’re trying to answer, you’re not going to get meaningful results from of your monitoring system. We always seek to determine specific goals of the monitoring of a structure. We can then make our systems highly customized to the address a specific structural issue.

David Kosnik
Research Engineer
B.S. in computer engineering, northwestern university
M.S. in Civil Engineering,
northwestern university
Licensed Professional Engineer in Illinois

What special skill set do you bring to the REG?

Like my colleagues, I’m involved in all phases of REG projects. In addition to my formal engineering education, I have bridge inspection training, which I use to plan sensor installations at critical areas. I plan and run acoustic emission tests in the field. Back in the lab, I specialize in data analysis and reporting, from database programming for our project Web sites to writing academic and professional papers on our work.

Which active project are you most excited about?

’m very excited about the project in Hurley, Wisconsin (p. 12). With this project we’re learning a lot about one simple bridge that is representative of many bridges; though this bridge is particularly interested because it is regularly subjected to overweight trucks. This project is showcasing our ability to measure both overall response and the response of some common fatigue-prone bridge details.

Why is it interesting to be in the REG?

The best part of working in the REG is the mix of field work and lab work. Things we build in the lab tend to be deployed in the field pretty quickly. We are forced to think in a very practical way when designing ready-to-deploy systems in the short term. After the deployment, we go to work on analysis and reporting, so we can glean useful information from the project data. We get involved in a wide variety of projects, too - between the REG’s own research agenda and support of professors’ research, we’ve worked in places from tunnels forty feet below Chicago to the top chord of a truss bridge high above the Ohio River.

David Corr
Clinical Associate Professor of Structural Engineering
B.S. in Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, University of Notre Dame
M.S./Ph.D. in civil & Environmental engineering, university of california, berkeley
licensed professional engineer in illinois

What special skill set do you bring to the REG?

I have a formal education and industry experience in structural engineering, specifically in forensic engineering and structural diagnostics. These skills are pertinent to the work REG does, both in the planning phase (when decisions are made about which sensors to install and where), during implementation (as in-field decisions are made once existing conditions are known), and in post processing (as data are processed and used to make decisions or model structural behavior).

About which active project are you most excited?

In the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge project, our system detected the failure of a component of the bridge, which is very exciting to me. We are involved in the repair process and expect to be instrumenting the retrofitted structure, so we will be able to continuously monitor the retrofit. Projects like these that demonstrate the clear benefit of structural health monitoring and our contribution to society are where I find the most professional satisfaction.

You’re a professor and a member of the REG, and you have your own research projects. Is your other research relevant to current
REG work?

I’m working on a project right now with Pablo Durango-Cohen where we take streams of data from structural health monitoring systems, like the ones that the REG installs, and applies statistical methods to filter out sources of variation in the data (p. 14). The idea is to remove traffic, temperature, and seasonal effects to get to the underlying trend in the data which is more indicative of the condition of the structure. Once we have this trend, we can more easily identify changes in the condition of the structure - without these methods the changes in condition are easily lost in the variability in the data. Methods such as these work hand in hand with the SHM systems the REG installs: the statistical methods need sets of reliable long-term data to work, while the SHM systems need a robust way to manage and distill information out of the large sets of data that are generated.