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Tablet PCs Transform Bridge Inspection

Ontario's 2800 highway bridges are inspected every two years using the recently developed Windows 2000-based Bridge Management System (BMS). This system records and tracks the condition of dozens of components in each bridge and can provide an instantaneous picture of the current state of bridges in the province, and facilitates the planning of repairs and replacement.

The volume of data that must be recorded and input into the database is enormous. The data must be recorded manually on paper in the field and then keyed into the system upon returning to the office, a factor that impedes the BMS, as well as most bridge management systems in use throughout North America. This duplication results in a waste of technical resources.

MTO's five Regional Structural Sections, who are responsible for bridge inspection operations, recognized some years ago that system efficiency could be improved by automating the field acquisition of data. While the approach made sense in theory, the primary stumbling block was that no existing hardware was powerful enough to run the full BMS. This meant that an alternate data acquisition interface would have to be developed.

The recent advent of new tablet PCs changed this. These units, which resemble clipboards in appearance, were developed to take advantage of new Windows technology. The portable tablets are essentially full performance Pentium PCs operating with Windows 2000 or XP. Since BMS operates in Windows 2000, it seemed logical that it could be installed, in whole, on one of the Tablet PCs and used in the field.

In early 2003, Northwestern Region Structural Section, in collaboration with the Regional IT Office, spearheaded a pilot project to do just that. There are a number of manufacturers of Tablet PCs. The Fujitsu Stylistic 4000 was found to be the most cost effective unit that could still use Windows 2000, which was necessary for the BMS. Initial office trials were extremely encouraging, as the BMS loaded and operated flawlessly. Once the BMS was loaded onto the tablet, bridge data could be easily entered using the touch screen and digital pen. Also, a keyboard could be pulled up on-screen to facilitate data entry; additionally, the system is fully capable of recognizing and interpreting handwriting. Sketches can be attached to inspection files, and the whole system can be converted into a desktop via a docking station.

In spring 2003, the Fujitsu was run through field trials and used to record data for all inspections carried out by the region's bridge inspectors. Each day BMS data for up to 10 bridges was downloaded onto the tablet. As each bridge was inspected, the data was recorded directly onto the tablet and stored in the unit's 32 GB hard drive. Digital photographs were also loaded onto the tablet. The inspectors could have at their disposal not only blank inspection forms, but also previous inspection reports and photographs, in order to track deterioration progress. At the end of the day the data would be backed up onto compact disks via a docking station, and the process was repeated again the following day for the next set of bridge inspections.

The system functioned flawlessly. The tablet was rugged enough for field use, and at a weight of three pounds, was not the least bit cumbersome to users. Data entry was as fast, if not faster, than the old pen and paper approach. Functionally, it truly emulated a clipboard. The technology had one minor inconvenience: there was difficulty reading the screen in direct sunlight. This requires the user to occasionally seek shade under a bridge in order to complete data input. Fujitsu has overcome this problem with the development of a new generation of daylight readable screens.

As a result of Northwestern Region's success in using the BMS data entry tablet, it is expected that all regions and consultants will make the move to this technology in the near future.

Special thanks are owed to Darcy Charrette of the Regional IT Office and Tony Merlo of the Bridge Office for their assistance in the development of this system, and to Richard Gombola of the Regional Structural Section for his perseverance in helping to advance the field of bridge inspection.

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