Civil Engineering & Artificial Intelligence (AI) Applications from Netherlands
This special issue of Dr. Z’s Corner will be the last before we break for the summer. This month I’ve decided to surprise our readers and invited two well-known engineers and scholars from Europe. My guest authors, Dr. Eleni Smyrou and Dr. İhsan Engin Bal, work together as a husband and wife team and currently both are faculty at Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, Netherlands. I hope you will enjoy their interesting article.
Technology is evolving at an unprecedented speed, by transforming the society, politics, governance, and professions. Civil engineering is no exception.
Computers significantly changed the way structures are engineered. The method of Hardy Cross from the University of Illinois UrbanaChampaign, for example, was revolutionary in the 30s, enabling structural engineers to design and build taller structures until the 60s. Similarly, the elastic design spectrum, proposed by Nathan Newmark who is another professor at Urbana-Champaign, revolutionized the seismic design of structures starting from the 50s. The implementation of computerized methods in civil engineering, however, was a total game changer. Now 90 years after the first publication of the Cross Method, and more than 60 years after the proposal of the Newmark Spectrum, our structural design problems are more complex than ever.
Although the civil engineering discipline adapted well to the early changes of computerization, the adoption of emerging technologies in the new millennium is slow. The use of brute-force when using computers to analyze and design larger, taller and more complex structures has become the main exploitation area of technology in civil engineering. Furthermore, structures have become much more complex in the last few decades, requiring interface with other disciplines via technologies such as BIM (Building Information Modeling), which is another technological development that found a place in practice. Apart from those, and despite the extensive research, other emerging technologies did not actually revolutionize the design and construction processes, yet; though this may change in the coming years.
Things are changing recently, although slow and limited. Some new technology applications in civil engineering are evident in the last few years. The momentum in new technologies spreading through our daily routines, and the increasing societal and economic demands, are forcing the civil engineering discipline to adapt.
In this article, we discuss one of the major emerging technologies, “Artificial Intelligence”, the magic word of the recent years.
What is AI?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a broader term that covers all sorts of applications where the intelligence is developed by a machine. Although the concept dates back to the 40s, everyday applications were only possible when the available computational power was enough to deploy large datasets for training models. This happened in the last several years, thanks to the use of GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), which was a major breakthrough for the realization of real-life AI.
The computers consist of CPU (Central Processor Unit) and GPU among other components. The processes are usually done by CPU and thus the computational power of your computer will heavily depend on the power of your CPU. GPU, however, is attached to the graphical unit of the computer and is used only for graphically demanding applications, such as playing videos, rendering 3D models, or playing games. Over the years the GPUs have become stronger and stronger, creating a sort of hidden power inside every computer, but used only for graphical purposes. It was not until a few years ago that it was discovered that the GPUs can be extremely useful for training AI models because they can run multiple training processes in parallel, something which can speed up the AI training significantly.
Today AI is almost everywhere. Entertainment platforms on the internet, for example, provide song, movie or series recommendations based on AI technology. The more time you spend on such platforms, the more data the AI algorithm will collect, get better trained and, in a way, get better acquainted to you. It will eventually provide you better and better recommendations. After a while these platforms become like a good friend who know your taste very well. That is the machine intelligence we are talking about.
Can AI Detect Structural Problems?
The same concept as entertainment platforms applies in almost all fields. In civil engineering for example, AI is already used in several areas. One of the most successful applications is detecting structural problems, anomalies, damage and deterioration based on photographs. Similarly to the entertainment platforms, the more data which is provided, the more accurate the model and the predictions become. Such AI-powered tools are more suitable for existing structures at the moment, thanks to the abundance of data for training models. Even if not, it is easier to collect data from existing structures rather than the new structures that are not even built yet. That is why many engineering firms are digging out their photographic databases to see if they can throw these photos into a smart AI model and replace the laborious engineering work of damage detection with computer codes.
In recent work1 with our colleagues from Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen (Netherlands) and University of Leeds (UK), we showed that a simple photograph would be enough to detect a crack on a masonry brick surface. Earlier methods were able to only place the crack in a bounding box, telling us simply “there is a crack somewhere inside this box”. Our method detects the cracks pixel-wise, telling us the exact location, length, spread and width of the crack in a photograph. This was not achieved in masonry surfaces before, although AI-based crack detection is more advanced in concrete and asphalt surfaces, which are rather homogenous. Our work brings new opportunities such as regular scanning of historical buildings or old masonry structures based on simple photographs, an opportunity that will significantly reduce costs and time, and allow access to many more structures. What is superior in this method is that, even photographs taken by citizens and non-technical people can be used for extracting engineering information in a fully automatic fashion.
We support the crack detection technology with other emerging technologies, such as 3D scene reconstruction and near-infrared (NIR) crack width estimation, among others. The former is a method that can build a 3D computer model if enough photos are taken from a real structure, while the latter is a method where we developed invisible markers that reflect light only if special NIR cameras are used. Both of these technologies allow us to train a building responsible person or a citizen for taking suitable photographs for engineering purposes. Photographs can be taken regularly or after an event, such as earthquakes or deep excavations. We are already testing the combination of these technologies in a project funded by the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE).
AI is a promising concept and will certainly find further application areas in civil engineering, helping engineers make critical decisions for complex problems.
About the Authors:
Dr. Eleni Smyrou and Dr. İhsan Engin Bal work at Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, Netherlands, in the Earthquake Resistant Structures research group. They both have degrees in civil engineering, as well as M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in earthquake engineering. Their work areas are seismic design, assessment, monitoring and strengthening of structures. Use of new technologies for structural safety has been a major research agenda topic for them for the last couple of years. They are also co-founders of “Senso Engineering – Vibration Solutions” and “Strintel – Structural Intelligence”, two startups which are providing services on the use of new technologies for structural safety.
(this is an open access article which is freely downloadable)