innovate

Data dive

2.6m bridges in the world

7 Victorian bridges fitted with new sensor technology

$US2m lost daily by us trucking industry through the I-40 bridge closure

$30b estimated cost to replace Australia’s ageing infrastructure

323 timber bridges in Queensland state road network

$109m shortfall in bridge maintenance in Western Australia

Sources: Eloque, Xerox, Australian Local Government Association National State of the Assets 2018 report, GHD Infrastructure Australia 2015 report.

Two leading global surveys paint a picture of Australia’s declining innovation credentials. The Global Innovation Index highlights innovation strengths and weaknesses, in particular gaps in innovation metrics. The IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking evaluates countries’ ability to embrace digital technologies and transformation. This special feature examines innovation’s issue with management performance, featuring expert commentary and showcasing industry leaders trying a different tack to attain the desired results.

In 2017, former Western Bulldogs CEO turned VicTrack boss Campbell Rose AM GAICD began losing sleep over the risk profile of some of the state’s $45b in rail-based assets. The more he investigated how the state government agency that owns Victoria’s rail transport land, assets and infrastructure was spending the $6m allocated to bridge-based maintenance each year, the more his discomfort was growing.

“I thought, do I really know the condition of my bridges?” says Rose. “Can I honestly look the Premier in the eye and tell him every bridge in Victoria is in a suitable state for use? That... there’ll be no bridge collapses? Or there’ll be no deterioration in those assets to the point where they need to be shut down, which affects economies? I couldn’t.”

Rose’s investigations had revealed that crews assessed the structural integrity of VicTrack’s 2600 ageing bridges by visual and manual inspection, occasionally taking a concrete core sample. This is standard practice, but Rose knew that many problems might not be apparent to the naked eye or during manual inspection.

Globally, ageing and crumbling infrastructure is an emerging problem that may involve anything from inconvenience to catastrophe. In Australia, an estimated 70 per cent of bridges are more than 50 years old. In the US, the comparable figure is 42 per cent. The recent closure of the I-40 Bridge over the Mississippi River due to a cracked steel beam that had not been identified during manual inspection, demonstrates the safety issues and associated economic impacts.

A technology solution

Rose wondered if there was a way of using emerging sensor technologies to provide more detailed information about the condition of VicTrack bridges. He looked for a research organisation that could take the problem and run with it — and identified Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC).

PARC had developed hair-thin fibre optic sensors that could stretch the length of a bridge. Its advanced analytics could then accurately measure aspects such as structural strain, loads, vibration and corrosion — and deliver that information to operators remotely, in real time.

In 2018, VicTrack utilised more than 500 sensors on Banksia Street Bridge in Heidelberg, in an initial proof-of-concept trial. An extended trial in other locations followed. In May 2021, the organisation formed a partnership with Xerox to create Eloque, a joint venture to commercialise this technology. It is now rolling out a program of works with Victoria Department of Transport.

“We’ve shown that innovation doesn’t always require invention,” says Rose. “We took an existing technology, applied it in a unique way and are now offering asset owners an end-to-end solution and plugging a growing gap in the market.”

Rose, energised at the venture and its potential, performs a dual role as CEO of Eloque — which also has a joint board with representation from Xerox and the Victorian Government. “This represents a quantum shift... in the way (we) could look at assets... and gave assets a voice,” he says.

The technology means issues can be found early, before they potentially cause delays for motorists or passengers, and allows maintenance budgets to be better prioritised. Should its use become widespread, it will allow directors to better meet their obligations in terms of ensuring the safety and security of employees, customers and clients. “If the asset breaks, fails or deteriorates on their watch, then the financial viability of that company comes into question,” says Rose.

The technology has the potential to give insurers fine-grained information about the risk profile of infrastructure assets, says Andrew Davies GAICD, CEO of Victorian Managed Insurance Authority, which insures the state’s $220b worth of assets. “This type of information will help us better understand the risks in the asset and how it’s being managed. That means we can appropriately price those risks.”

Down the track, says Davies, more detailed condition monitoring may mean faster loss assessment after an asset is damaged — for example, through bushfire. It might even prevent further harm if loss assessors don’t need to physically travel into potentially hazardous areas. “We’ll know that an asset has been impacted by an insurable peril,” he says. “If we have data about the asset’s condition before and after the peril, a big part of the loss assessment can be done straight away.”

He adds that the project demonstrates the pockets of great innovation underway in government. “The challenge is articulating the vision of how a new idea will solve challenges and add value, then being persistent enough to get through approval processes so you can spin out organisations such as Eloque from government.”

Eloque is now talking to public officials and infrastructure managers in North America and Europe about deploying this new technology. While designed for bridges, it can be used on any structure needing maintenance, including roads, tunnels and ports. Rose highlights the importance of transcending the best practices of the past when better solutions emerge.

“[This] may require the redirection of resources to where they are most needed [and] you may need to reassure your employees that while the ecosystem is changing, their jobs are not under threat,” he says.

Given the global opportunity for the technology, scaling up rapidly represents the next challenge — but it’s one he’s taking in his stride. “I am, without a doubt, sleeping better now.”