Carnegie Mellon University

A Bridge to Improvement

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Prof Battles Aging Infrastructure

Aging Infrastructure

Our nation's aging infrastructure received an overall grade of 'D' in 2009 from the American Society of Civil Engineers — and improvement is a costly proposition. James Garrett (CIT'82,'83,'86) is doing his best to help.

Housed in Carnegie Mellon's Institute for Complex Engineered Systems (ICES), the multidisciplinary Center for Sensed Critical Infrastructure Research (CenSCIR) was co-founded by Garrett in 2005 — and is dedicated to providing the systems necessary for better, more efficient decision-making about these critical infrastructure issues.

"The bottom line is, there's always going to be greater need for maintaining our infrastructure than we have money to do so. Making the best use of our limited resources requires accurate knowledge of the condition and prognosis of our different infrastructure systems and components," explained Garrett, who was recently awarded the Lord Professorship of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

He continued, "Too often we wait until things break and get into a costly crisis management mode. The idea is, if we have better data and models, we'll be able to maintain our infrastructure at a higher quality and with less money."

The center has already developed valuable tools, including a computer vision-based approach to sort through robotically-gathered video and recognize potential sewer problems, as well as fusing laser scanning data with 3-D models to identify early construction errors.

Garrett's ties and dedication to Carnegie Mellon run deep. Not only did his mother, four siblings, spouse, father-in-law and two siblings-in-law attend the university, but both his children are currently undergraduates. Six of his family members are civil engineering majors.

"What I want for my kids is what I try to give to everybody that walks through this door," he said. "While Carnegie Mellon gives our students an excellent intellectual experience, it also gives them an innovative education. We don't just lecture to them. We have many challenging, team-based projects and labs, high-quality courses in engineering fundamentals, and a supportive and welcoming community."

Garrett came to Carnegie Mellon because of the unique opportunity to tie his interests in civil engineering and computer science. And it's the reason he stayed to complete his masters, doctorate, and become a faculty member.

"For me, it's more than just a job," he explained. "I came here because bridges interested me, and what I realized was that computing was something very important for civil engineering: for analysis, design — including the evaluation of codes and standards, construction management, and facility operations and maintenance.  I got that here, and stayed because I had the opportunity to work with the best, led by my Ph.D. advisor Steve Fenves, in bringing computing together with civil engineering."

What's next at CenSCIR? A revolutionary vision for bridge data collection and analysis. The interdisciplinary team, including Professors Jacobo Bielak (CEE) and Jelena Kovacevic (Biomedical Engineering) and Drs. Aaron Steinfeld and Christoph Mertz from the Robotics Institute, hopes to use sensors, not on the bridges themselves, but those already on the actual vehicles that drive over the bridges, such as the fleet of city buses that already crisscross the region, to collect information about the condition of those bridges.

"Carnegie Mellon is a special place where we appreciate and understand interdisciplinary problem solving and excel at identifying interesting problems that require us to work across disciplines," Garrett stressed. "We're quite excited about this 'vehicles as sensors' project. If we can work though all the technical challenges, it'll be transformational."

Photo: Prof. Garrett in the lab, standing in front of a section of a steel box girder used by several Carnegie Mellon faculty and students in CenSCIR to develop and test an ultrasonic defect detection system.

Related Links: Watch Video: Highlights of CenSCIR Panel  |  CenSCIR  |  ICES  |  Civil & Environmental Engineering  |  Garrett's Bio