Discussing current issues in engineering
With Congress coming back in session after their August recess, some significant federal funding bills are set to potentially pass through legislation. With last year’s low infrastructure grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, it’s easy to see why these legislations are important. Here are some of the major infrastructural issues we’re watching for this session:
All of these issues work together to determine how strong our country’s infrastructure is. We hope to see some priority given to improving our national roadways, public parks, and other vital issues this year.
Labor Day might mostly be recognized as a chance for a long weekend getaway, but the day is intended to commemorate the over 150 million people in the United States workforce. Here are some fun facts about the holiday to enjoy on your day off:
We hope you have a relaxing day to spend with family and friends!
Residents in many cities likely notice (and complain about) what seems like constant construction on their streets, from small pothole fixes to larger repaving and commercial building projects. Construction might be more of a nuisance in highly populated cities during rush hour, but that only amplifies concerns for safety, both of construction workers and for those who try to navigate around it.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pedestrian fatalities have unfortunately increased—primarily at nighttime, when visibility is the lowest. Contributing factors include poor visibility and blind spots on large construction vehicles. While safety has improved over the years on and off construction sites, many operators are starting to invest in stricter safety procedures like vehicle safety systems and radar obstacle detection technology.
One example of these systems is called a Backsense Radar, which uses Frequency Modulated Continuous Waves to eliminate the multiple blind spots on a vehicle, alerting its driver if objects are nearby. It gives a loud, clear warning when a blind spot obstruction appears and transmits a continuously-varying signal. It can also be customized to fit different sized vehicles on construction sites across customized detection areas. Systems like this are more effective than alternative pulsed radar technology, which provides slower feedback and can often only cover one blind spot at a time.
This is only one way in improving safety on and around construction sites, but systems like Backsense are a great start. The ability to detect objects and people in blind spots is crucial to safety on and around worksites, where workers have to carefully navigate their every move. To read more about the ways radar is used to decrease injuries on the road, click here for the full article.
You might have noticed more and more mention of autonomous cars recently—big companies like Tesla and Google are working on taking advantage of what many hope is the next big technological leap. Driverless cars come with many potential benefits including safer driving, but there are still issues to work out before making autonomous driving mainstream. One of them is basic reasoning.
Humans are remarkably good at navigating roads we’re unfamiliar with; even when using a GPS, we rely on observation and our senses to determine where we need to go. Driverless cars, however, can’t reason in the same way. Part of the problem is due to how these cars navigate now: in every new area, they first use complex maps to analyze all new roads, then generate 3D scans to rely on. This process is time-consuming and not always reliable in more rural areas.
Researchers at MIT are working on this shortfall by creating a system that uses only simple maps and visual data to help driverless cars navigate routes in new, complicated environments. By creating an end-to-end navigation system, offering new maps available for cars to download, and creating an easier way to store and process maps, these cars should be able to navigate more easily in unfamiliar areas. Since car-to-infrastructure communication is essential for driverless cars to function smoothly, researchers are hoping this new system will make the process run more efficiently.
It turns out that even smart, driverless cars need to depend on human intuition to fill in the gaps that advanced technology can’t match! For more on MIT’s project, see the article here on Science Daily.
Earthquakes like this month’s 7.1 magnitude quake can be devastating. But new ways of planning and building now exist to take into account these disasters, particularly in urban cities along fault lines. For engineers in these areas, this adds an important dimension to civil and structural design.
Buildings are already built to withstand vertical stress on a day-to-day basis; anything from heavy weight bearing to strong winds are always considered when designing a structure. However, major quakes put horizontal stress on buildings—a stress for which earlier buildings weren’t designed, making old buildings far more likely to collapse or suffer damage during an earthquake.
Earthquake simulators are one way engineers can assess potential seismic behavior in vulnerable regions. For example, researchers at Lehigh University established a real-time multi-directional simulation facility to develop models of large-scale structures to replicate seismic events. The data collected from sensors are then processed by a team, ultimately enabling them to accurately test the nature of structural collapse. This helps to make sure any new structures are adequately designed and built in case of another fault-line disaster.
To read more about earthquakes and their impact on the way civil engineers have shaped design strategies around them, check out this graphic from Norwich University.
The American Society of Civil Engineer’s new effort, Future World Vision: Infrastructure Reimagined, asks civil engineers to consider the shifts in ways we learn, practice, and manage our profession in the upcoming decades. With rapid development in technology approaching, the most important global trends civil engineers will need to consider are:
The ways these trends intersect and affect one another will be critical in determining the ways civil engineers utilize their services in the future. Transportation needs, artificial intelligence, and new forms of construction will significantly change our everyday lives as we continue to progress, and keeping up with these trends early-on allows us to envision ways to accommodate this new environment.
For example, growing needs in transportation automation lead us to consider new ways people and goods will be moved more efficiently. If automated vehicles and hyperloop public transportation become commonplace, soon enough it will fundamentally affect the ways cities are built around them, which in turn would impact almost any design. With hyperloop plans already considered in many major cities worldwide, changes in the ways we live, work, and commute are only a few ways technology will change the field in the future.
To learn more about the full Future World Vision effort, take a look at their website and full report here.
A school district in Rockford, Illinois has recently debuted a school designed to imitate a town hall with an open, pragmatic spatial layout.
The prototype, designed along with students, features a central “town hall” surrounded by classrooms targeted to students based on their age groupings from kindergarten to fifth grade. It unites the school’s gym, cafeteria, art classrooms, library, and its other public spaces. Workshops were conducted with students to develop new ideas based on how the students view their surroundings, leading to the unique design. The architecture directly engages children and is both stimulating and educational. Each space contains geometric, colorful windows, movable furniture, and more development behind the prototype’s spatial reasoning.
Experts have long worried about keeping a new generation of students focused in school, and new technologies have arisen to address the issue. But Rockford takes a different perspective by communicating with students directly and changing the spaces they see daily into something engaging and beneficial. Learn more about this innovative school prototype.
A recent NPR interview with Tom Smith, the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, discusses the United States’ D+ grade on the Society’s last report card from 2017.
Smith explains that this is mainly due to neglected infrastructure. Issues like national transportation aren’t receiving adequate funding from Congress, which has not been building upkeep and maintenance into budgets. Smith states that the country’s infrastructure requires funding and leadership from the federal government.
The effects of neglecting U.S. infrastructure are not just internal or invisible—in fact, consequences are becoming more visible every day. Currently in the water sector, Smith points out there are “240,000 waterline breaks a year. So every couple of minutes, we’re seeing a waterline break,” which not only affects waterlines but also spreads to system shutdowns, such as the Metro system in Washington, D.C.
Traffic is another side effect of our poor infrastructure, and though taxpayer money is a main part of the solution to this problem, taxpayers are actually paying more due to a failure to invest in infrastructure—a hidden tax of about $3,400 a year. He concludes that, by investing in roadway upkeep, waterlines, and other important infrastructural systems, we can save money for households and make large strides towards a more efficient system.
Researchers at Washington State University have recently developed a plant-based insulation alternative to Styrofoam, according to this article on Science Daily.
Styrofoam is a popular material because it’s cheap and good for insulation—you might recognize it from takeout boxes and disposable coffee cups. However, Styrofoam is made from petroleum, it doesn’t degrade naturally (similar to plastic), and burning it is harmful to the environment.
This new plant-based alternative is created from 75% cellulose nanocrystals from wood pulp. The new material is lightweight, degrades well, and is far better for the environment even if disposed of. In fact, the new material appears to be a better insulator than Styrofoam.
Researcher Xiao Zhang, associate professor at the Gene and Linda School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering who was interviewed for the article, states that this material “has many desirable properties, and to be able to transfer these properties to a bulk sale for the first time through this engineered approach is very exciting.”
Innovations like this are very exciting because they bring us one step closer to a more environmentally sustainable future. The best way to stop manufacturing existing harmful materials is to create better alternatives, and researchers at Washington State are doing just that.
With rising global temperatures, natural disasters have become more frequent and intense in recent years—costing over $1.5 trillion and resulting in nearly 10,000 casualties since 1980.
But what’s also becoming more prevalent are “cascading natural disasters”—when one hazardous event impacts or creates another, creating a domino effect of destruction.
For example, after a wildfire or deforestation, topsoil becomes destabilized, leaving the earth incapable of absorbing rainfall. This then leads to flooding and landslides, such as the 20-foot high mudslide that hit Montecito, California homes at 20 miles per hour in January 2018.
Or consider hurricanes and their resulting storm surges. Flooding from these events typically impacts low-income households the most—as it did during Hurricane Katrina—since the most affordable homes tend to be located in the floodplains. This leads to a humanitarian disaster.
Although it’s impossible to predict the next hazardous event, civil engineers work to build solutions to reduce their impact and prevent the cascading effect. This means designing with the big picture in mind—rather than solving just the issue at hand.
To learn more about cascading natural disasters, check out this insightful article from Nature, International Journal of Science.
Colman Engineering, PLC
A professional engineering firm located in Harrisonburg, VA