NIST Program to Fund Infrastructure Research

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced nine awards for new research projects to develop advanced sensing technologies that would enable timely and detailed monitoring and inspection of the structural health of bridges, roadways, and water systems that comprise a significant component of the nation’s public infrastructure.

According to a Jan. 13 press release, the awards are the first to be made under NIST’s new Technology Innovation Program (TIP), which was created to support innovative, high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need where the government has a clear interest because of the magnitude of the problems and their importance to society.

The cost-shared awards initiate up to $88.2 million in new research over the next five years on structure monitoring and inspection technologies, $42.5 million of it potentially funded by TIP.

TIP was established by the 2007 America COMPETES Act to support, promote, and accelerate innovation in the United States through high-risk, high-reward research in areas of critical national need. The merit-based competitive program can fund cost-shared R&D projects by single small-sized or medium-sized businesses and joint ventures that also may include institutions of higher education, non-profit research organizations, and national laboratories. TIP awards are limited to no more than $3 million total over three years for a single company project and no more than $9 million total over five years for a joint venture.

The first TIP competition for research funding, announced July 9, 2008, targeted new, efficient, accurate, low-cost and reliable sensors and related technologies that provide quantitative assessments of the structural integrity or degree of deterioration of bridges, roads, water mains, and wastewater collection systems. The nation’s economy depends critically on a large and complex civil infrastructure of water pipelines, roads, bridges, and tunnels. The United States has 1 million miles of water mains, 600,000 bridges, and 4 million miles of public roadway.

Experts have pointed to serious gaps in the nation’s ability to monitor these networks adequately to ensure timely maintenance and repair. Twenty-five percent of U.S. bridges were rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete in 2007, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency reported that there are 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Baltimore, Md., as an example of an older urban area, suffered almost 1,200 water main breaks in 2003. Leakages and breaks in water distribution systems are estimated to waste up to 6 billion gallons of drinking water each day.

Damaged infrastructure also directly affects large numbers of Americans. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that Americans spend $54 billion each year in vehicle repairs caused by poor road conditions.

The TIP white paper "Advanced Sensing Technologies for the Infrastructure: Roads, Highways, Bridges and Water Systems" can be obtained from the NIST Web site at Additional information on the Technology Innovation Program is available at

Included among the projects receiving awards are development of

• an extensible and self-powered sensor network using a peer-to-peer communication protocol for nondestructive evaluation (NDE) and health monitoring of bridges, buildings, pipelines, and other major infrastructure components.

• an economical, fiber-optics-based system for monitoring the structural health of large infrastructure elements such as bridges or pipelines utilizing light pulses traveling down a cable to provide high-resolution, localized identification of both static and dynamic conditions without the need for installing large networks of discrete sensors.

• a novel, deep-penetrating scanning system based on ultrawideband radar for inspecting buried infrastructure such as pipelines, tunnels, and culverts that can detect fractures, quantify corrosion and determine the presence of voids in the surrounding soil to "see" beyond the structure to prevent accidents. The technology provides analysis that cannot be detected by current pipe inspection techniques.