Virtual environments will help engineering students learn how to inspect bridges

  • September 11, 2014
  • Science Highlights

Hauling a classroom of engineering students to a busy highway bridge to teach them how to inspect for cracks, corrosion and other damage is a logistical challenge and a bit dicey from a safety perspective.

But Robert Connor, associate professor of civil engineering, is developing a multifaceted program for students to get that kind of field experience without even leaving campus. Immersive, interactive virtual environments being created by ITaP’s Envision Center are a key element.

“The kind of realistic simulations these guys can create is exciting,” Connor says. “Maybe the student is being prepared to find something easy, like missing bolts, but a lot of times bridge inspection has to be done at night, so finding something easy in the daylight may not be so easy at night. We can simulate such conditions using the expertise of the Envision Center.”

The Steel Bridge Research, Inspection, Training, and Engineering Center (S-BRITE), part of the Purdue School of Civil Engineering’s Center for Aging Infrastructure (CAI), also is creating an outdoor “laboratory” of bridges and bridge components on 22 acres near the Purdue Airport. For example, Connor has obtained an entire 65-foot retired railroad bridge for students and engineers to inspect.

“If I wanted to take you out to inspect a crack or fault, it would be dangerous on a busy bridge,” Connor says. “The concept of S-BRITE is to take the material from damaged bridges and use it for training, but in a safe and controlled environment, right here on campus.”

The Envision Center’s virtual simulations will supplement the real-world lab and prepare students for working with actual bridge structures.

“We’re developing tools for initial training, like finding cracks and tutorials on how to learn where to begin looking for cracks,” Connor says. “We can make models of what we have in the field, so then we can move out to the structures on the property.”

The simulations can incorporate realistic weather conditions, noise, debris and distractions, and tools that would be used in the field such as flashlights, magnifying glasses and brushes. The virtual environments can be projected in the immersive, interactive 3-D virtual theater in the Envision Center and in portable virtual reality headsets, once expensive pieces of sensitive computer hardware but now widely available at reasonable prices.

“Using digital simulations for education is relatively recent,” says George Takahashi, the Envision Center technical lead. “Teaching in this way is helpful because the technology we have these days permits us to go further and do more.”

Takahashi was a speaker this summer at the annual American Society of Agriculture and Biological Engineers meeting in Montreal, where he showcased Envision Center projects to visualize research data and build educational tools. Among other things, the center has created simulations to enhance the learning of orbital dynamics, explain techniques for setting up accessible bioscience labs and prepare pharmacy students to work in pharmacy cleanrooms.

Part of ITaP Research Computing (RCAC), the Envision Center uses a blend of technology and art to help enhance research and teaching by graphically representing data and information. It specializes in technology and techniques such as data visualization and analysis; virtual simulation; human-computer interaction; and media creation, including video, animations and publication-quality stills.

Besides operating the hardware and software, expert staff and students at the Envision Center consult on ways to graphically represent research and enhance teaching and collaborate on grants, including building demos that may be needed for proposals. Connor says that the Envision Center’s assistance helps give his group a more competitive shot at receiving grants to support its bridge research.

“We are available to help if you want to flesh out your research ideas,” says Jon Wright, Envision Center project director. “We’re happy to work with you to create a proof-of-concept, design a simulation or develop a visualization to showcase your research to a wider community.”

Starting Sept. 11, the Envision Center will present a series of fall seminars for faculty, students and staff from any field who may want to visualize, animate or employ virtual reality in their research, or for teaching purposes.

For more information about Envision Center services, contact George Takahashi, Envision Center technical lead, 49-67888,, or Jon Wright, Envision Center project manager, 49-43165,

Originally posted: September 3, 2014 11:15am EDT