When people talk about “smart infrastructure,” here’s what they’re talking about: Iowa’s roads in the winter.
Each of Iowa’s snowplows reports its location and speed in real time, along with the temperature of the road it’s plowing. Hundreds of plows have windshield mounted cameras, providing a driver’s-eye view of road conditions. All that data is relayed back to servers at the Iowa Department of Transportation, where it’s merged with information from 700 fixed cameras, 75 weather stations, and real time traffic flow data.
The result: When a storm sweeps in, Iowa drivers can call up a dashboard on a computer or smart phone and see the condition of their route — whether the road is open, how the traffic is moving, even what the road looks like. This “Track a Plow” dashboard is the kind of web page that has become familiar to billions from the COVID pandemic. It synthesizes data from a dozen different sources in a way that would have seemed like science fiction even a decade ago, providing a vivid, intuitive picture of what’s happening where.
Schools and businesses can make better decisions about whether to open during serious snow events. Transportation companies can figure out whether their trucks will get through — and where is the safest, fastest route. Iowa DOT can see which roads need more plowing, how urgently, and which plows are closest to problem spots.
It’s innovative. It’s useful. It’s become indispensable.
But it’s something much more. It’s exactly the kind of new tool we will need to adapt to scores of different settings as the U.S. undertakes the most sweeping overhaul of its infrastructure in nearly seven decades: a nimble system that lets us see our roads, and our water systems, our bridges and electric grids and airports, in ways we never have been able to before. It’s a way of combining geography and data to look at vital parts of our everyday world — water mains or blizzard-blocked highways — to both manage and rebuild them in the smartest ways.
Last November, the Biden Administration successfully passed the largest investment in U.S. infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System was approved in 1956 — with total spending of $1.2 trillion. It’s a historic sum of money, equal to twice what we spent to build the interstates — after adjusting for inflation.
But we can’t just rebuild our roads and bridges, restring our power lines and re-bury our water mains, in the ways we always have. If we do, we’ll waste money, neglect long-overlooked communities, and miss an opportunity to make everything we rely on work better every day and for decades into the future.
The truth is that America’s infrastructure is built for a climate we are not living in anymore. While the challenges of antiquated water networks and crumbling roadways have always been a struggle, the extreme weather events of climate change have made them critically urgent today. Just last week Hurricane Ian’s record winds battered southwest Florida’s infrastructure leading to widespread flooding and power outages.
Some government leaders are taking a geographic approach using technology to create the infrastructure we will need for a changing world.
That’s what the Iowa “Track A Plow” system does. It seems simple yet it’s vital for everyone using the roads. Behind the scenes, it’s an even more powerful tool for managing and maintaining transportation, allowing Iowa’s DOT to understand how much it costs to clear snow from each stretch of road, which storms are most expensive to cope with, even to understand the application of salt in ways that has saved the state more than $2.5 million a year. This system builds resilience, adaptability, right into the structures.
That’s why we need to use just a little bit of the budget of every new infrastructure project — 5 percent, 10 percent — to add sensors, to build digital models of everything we do, so every highway and bridge, every powerline and airport concourse, reports its status, just like Iowa’s highways.
We need to take this moment to give the infrastructure its own infrastructure.
“Smart infrastructure” isn’t so much about money as it is about mindset.
During the COVID pandemic, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) embarked on a $7 billion modernization, taking advantage of the 60% drop in air traffic to expand two terminals, build a new Grand Hyatt Hotel, a new administration building, and a new parking garage.
Every inch of the new work is digitized, from the foundation piers deep in the ground to the security status and kind of lock on every door. The people who run and maintain SFO can instantly click through 3D images of the airport to astonishing levels of detail — what kind of furniture is at each gate, color, fabric, the date of installation.
The version of SFO that lives inside the airport’s computers — it’s a geography-driven “digital twin” or a “dynamic twin” — is updated in real time, including flows of people through the terminals. How long will it take to get from the curb to the gate? Passengers can see instantly. When it’s time to replace the HVAC filters on a concourse, a maintenance person can call up a digital image of the duct work, see how many filters the concourse needs, which kind each location takes, whether the right filters are in stock, even whether a particular location requires a ladder.
The usefulness of digitizing infrastructure in this way is multi-layered.
Colorado’s DOT has started using digital infrastructure to help protect state highways from avalanches. In Connecticut, engineers are using high-resolution digital imagery and sensors to replace a railroad bridge, built in1896, that carries four tracks across the Norwalk River. In part, as a result, the new bridge can be built safely while keeping the old bridge in service.
The ability to make our infrastructure “smart” pulls together technologies that have grown up together in the last decade: inexpensive sensors and cameras; cheap and always-on wireless connections; sophisticated drafting and mapping programs; and geographic information systems software with the power to layer all that very different data onto a web page or mobile application and update it in real time.
It’s a high-powered system, an intelligent nervous system for our infrastructure. It changes not just what we know, but how we can make decisions. We can know precisely what to do, when, and where.
Consider just one part of the infrastructure bill.
Across the U.S., 45,000 bridges need serious maintenance and rehabilitation.
The Biden infrastructure bill provides $40 billion for bridge work, a huge sum — except that it comes to less than $1 million per ailing bridge. In fact, by itself, that $40 billion is probably only enough to fix 10% of the bridges, or even fewer.
That underscores the need to be smart about how we choose which bridges to fix and to be smart about how we fix them. What we’re really doing is creating a new generation of bridges, and of all our infrastructure, that is easier to maintain, and less costly to maintain.
The pandemic has highlighted a huge gap in U.S. infrastructure — the digital divide. Millions of American families do not have high-speed internet access, mostly in rural and tribal areas. The Biden infrastructure effort includes $65 billion to extend broadband access, more money than for airports or water systems or bridges. The first step to spending that money effectively — to using it to get broadband to the most underserved locations — is to map who doesn’t have it now. And we can use those maps to ask important questions about equity as part of selecting where to string new fiber cables.
One hundred years ago, a group of determined public officials laid the foundation of America’s drinking water system. Eighty years ago, the national electric grid was created. Sixty years ago, the interstate highway system. The U.S. economy, the health and safety and standard of living of every American, still relies every hour of every day on the pioneering engineering of all that infrastructure — cutting edge in its own day.
Today, we have the chance not just to fix our timeworn highways and bridges, our damaged water mains, and outdated airports, we have the chance to modernize them for a new century. To create for the next 50 and 100 years what the architects, engineers, and construction workers of 1920 and 1950 America created for us.