County commission considers AI tool for highway department

Published 9:30 am Friday, June 7, 2024

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At the work session of the Chambers County Commission, County Engineer Josh Harvill suggested some technological solutions to help his staff at the Highway Department evaluate pavement and bridge conditions.

Harvill said with bridge inspections in particular, the inspections must be done every two years and be “hands-on” taking several hours. It also takes time it takes to record the data from these inspections. With 145 structures in Chambers County, Harvill said his personnel could be aided by more tools in their evaluations.

“Those inspections could be going out a good bridge every two years to going out to a bad bridge every three months …trying to notice what the problem we are having with that structure,” Harvill said.

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He added, “It’s stressful for my folks to make those decisions when they come back from that bridge…and say hey it is time to close [that bridge]. It is time to prioritize.”

The program discussed was an Artificial Intelligence (AI) software called Dynamic Infrastructure. Harvill said the program has been presented and used by other County Engineers within NACE (National Association of County Engineers).

Dynamic Infrastructure website says the company’s software, “automatically tracks defects in civil infrastructure assets to provide maintenance alerts, prevent unplanned expenses and maximize annual budgets.”

Photos and data taken during the hands-on bridge or infrastructure inspections, which are still performed by the Highway Department, are then uploaded onto a cloud system. The software can then give “actionable information” based on all of the past reports and photos, including suggested maintenance and even projecting the rate of deterioration for a type of concrete.

“What they use artificial intelligence to do is they take all these millions of pictures, we take every time we inspect a bridge, so in other words, the software doesn’t replace us,” Harvill explained. “It utilizes the stuff that we’re collecting every day… In really quick program it’s taking that and making split-second decisions based on the decision we’re already making.”

Harvill acknowledged that a big strain on his department is personnel. Both the Highway and Engineering departments have shrunk over the years, despite needing to maintain all the bridges and roads in Chambers County. The Engineer said the program provides them with a big picture of their work with efficiency.

“[The AI] is helping us manage the data and inspections that we are already producing. Which is very important, when you only have three people in the office and you’ve got a lot of the stuff we’re looking at,” Harvill said. “We don’t want to have a situation where we’re the next county with the example of a bridge collapse because we miss something, which is so easy to do.”

The system is a one-year deal for the cost of 25,000, that can be renewed year to year if desired. There is a benefit to buying the program for more than one year. Byy the end of two years all of the county bridges will have been expected again, at least one time, the program will have created a database of all the bridges in the county by that point. Harvill said he is not asking the Commission for anything yet, but wanted them to consider incorporating this type of technology into his department.

“It can hopefully help us prioritize repairs of those bridges little more effectively, a little more efficiently. It’ll never take the place of a good assistant engineer, never take the place of a good inspector, but it should help them do their job,” Harvill said.