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Maintaining a sound lifeline and aiming to actualize a smart society with next-generation infrastructure inspection technology

April 17, 2017

Critical infrastructure throughout the world that support industries and our everyday lives are approaching their renewal date. This is becoming a pressing issue for many developed countries where the infrastructure was created during the early stages of industrialization. Based on a myth that assumes a safe infrastructure, there are cases in which the infrastructure dates back from several years to over a century. Dealing with problems only after they occur may cause economic stagnation and put public safety at risk. By leveraging advanced sensor technology and AI, NEC is helping to preserve critical infrastructure, and contributing to the realization of a sustainable society.

Preservation of infrastructure impeded by lack of financial and human resources

The aging of critical infrastructure such as roads, water and sewage systems, seaports, airports, dams, and levees is becoming a major social problem, especially in developed countries. In European countries that led the industrial revolution and were first to industrialize, it is not uncommon for railway trestles and water pipes that were constructed over 100 years ago to still be in commission. In the United States, the average age of bridges is said to be 42 years old, and the average age of dams is 52 years old. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has rated about 14,000 dams as “extremely dangerous,” and about 151,200 bridges as “incomplete”.

Degradation of infrastructure due to aging not only poses a danger, but also greatly impacts our daily lives and the economy. Aging roads, for example, can cause accidents and traffic congestion, and the resulting loss of time and fuel can turn into a serious social issue. If power plants shut down, trains cannot operate and we are deprived of a means of transportation. Our everyday lives and working life will be plunged into turmoil and economic activity will come to a halt.

According to estimates of the G20 Business Summit, a meeting of top-level leaders from countries and international economic organizations, an investment of at least $15 trillion is needed to raise the quality of the world’s infrastructure to a certain level by 2030. However, the growth in GDP of economically advanced countries remains slow and social security costs are rising, so securing financial resources for infrastructure is extremely difficult. The conventional approach of “scrap and build” for infrastructure cannot be maintained.

What is now important is to focus on “sustainability,” an approach that targets extended use of existing infrastructure. The United Nations has formulated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that set targets for sustainable development with respect to society, the economy, and the environment. Sustainability of critical infrastructure is included among these goals.

The problem is the methodology for achieving these goals. Most of the support for infrastructure has relied on the skills of veteran engineers and technicians. However, the maturing of society and slow growth or decline of the population in developed countries has resulted in fewer veterans working onsite and difficulty in training young replacements.

For example, inspection of underground water pipes has depended on the ability of veteran workers to distinguish the sound of flowing water. Experience and expertise are also essential for the safe performance of hammering tests at high elevations and locations that are difficult to access. With such personnel “assets” being lost without their skills being handed down, the maintenance of infrastructure is becoming increasingly difficult.

Pinpointing and locating leaks in water pipes

As a Social Value Innovator, NEC contributes to the promotion of the sustainability of critical infrastructure by leveraging advanced sensor networks and data management technology. This makes it possible to achieve visualization of the infrastructure status and the creation of new value through time series analysis, which will alleviate shortages in personnel and technology.

For example, the Water Leak Monitoring Service is effective for sewer management in areas that cannot be easily reached by human hands. Although this service is for the Japanese market, it is being provided in cooperation with the Gutermann Corporation, a manufacturer that specializes in water leak detection and has world-class technology and experience in that field.

Easy to remove sensors are installed underground in the manholes of water pipes with hydrant and valves to detect water leaks by measuring vibrations. Because the sensors are simply placed inside manholes, no special work is required. The sensor unit is powered by a battery and can operate continuously for five years, so troublesome battery replacement is not necessary.

The most important feature is that sensor data can be managed and analyzed over a cloud platform. By analyzing the correlation of data from multiple sensors (vibration that is specific to water leaks), it is possible to identify the location of a suspected water leak within a radius of about 1 m. It is also possible to display that location on a web screen map.

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Water pipes are buried underground, so it is difficult to determine the location of water leaks. For that reason, leaks may continue for a number of months before anything is done. However, this service makes it possible to detect and deal with leaks within one week. Leaks can thus be stopped at an early stage and secondary damage to other underground facilities and road collapse, etc. can be prevented. Early detection of leaks reported by residents and onsite maintenance workers increases the sense of security for residents and improves the public image of local governments.

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