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Just back from the Transportation Research Board conference and meetings, Carolyn Whelan, a New York-based freelancer focused on alternative energy, climate change, trade, and travel, is guest-blogging for PopSci.com, focusing on new emissions-cutting technologies for infrastructure and transport which may play a prominent role in the Obama administration.

Like retailers did with the Internet, transit officials are borrowing a host of space-age applications from the military, enabling real-time reaction, response, repair, and rerouting in routine and emergency situations.

Or so said gadget and system developers at the Transportation Research Board’s annual shindig this week, where some 10,000 folks in the road, rail, air, and boat transit world meet to talk riveting topics like pedestrian wait times at stop lights and measuring traffic flow over snow.

But emerging smart and 3D technologies are shaking things up this year, particularly in the lab and at construction and repair sites. Among them is the Fixed Terrestrial 3D Laser Scanning System, which helps bridge and road builders speed up construction because they can instantaneously measure depth and space remotely.

It used to be that surveying engineers would risk contamination, slippage into roaring rivers, or broken legs from dangerous climbs as they painstakingly poke with depth meters to measure earth contours, obstacles, and available space in which to construct bridges and tunnels. But, tweaking technology used by the military, the construction sector’s knock-off uses lasers to measure the distance between the device and the area being photographed with great precision.

Among sites being mapped: Boston’s Big Dig, to pinpoint every millimeter of potholes requiring filling with a pricey polyester-based concrete; a section under the Golden Gate bridge, which must be reinforced for earthquakes with great care to avoid destabilizing earth around the historic former military base at the Presidio; and, a short drive away, Berkeley’s MacArthur Maze, near Oakland’s Bay Bridge, where a collapsed bridge connector in 2007 had to be quickly rebuilt following a tanker fuel spill and fire. Scanning and modeling the area enabled bridge builders to accelerate selection of materials and workers, and construction time.

Other areas which use this technology include the oil and gas, mining, and archaeological excavation industries, to feed data to archaeologists so they can gauge the difficulty and time associated with extracting artifacts safely.

Another military application being tried out by builders uses passive RFID to track material samples being tested.

Builders are also turning to Wi-Fi, also widely used by the military, to track and measure productivity at work sites in real time. After a colossal transportation change, such as a bridge collapse following terrorist attacks or a natural disaster, the system replaces the standard practice of time studies using humans and stopwatches. Digital cameras collect and wirelessly send images of repair and replacement progress in real time for offsite analysis and quick response such as evacuations or rerouting.

Read more of Carolyn’s work, from ScientificAmerican.com, Fortune, Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, and more.

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