North Carolina Department of Transportation
"We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our inspection teams to synchronize the data they collected with our consolidated Oracle database. MobiLink, SQL Anywhere's synchronization technology, enabled us to do that. All our field inspectors had to do was hit the synchronization button and the process just worked – it was that simple."
Bridge Maintenance Systems Specialist
The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) Bridge Management Unit is responsible for inspecting more than 18,000 bridges in accordance with federal guidelines. The unit also inspects related structures including pipes, culverts and overhead signs. Historically, this was a paper-based process, which was inefficient and inaccurate. In addition, each inspection team collected data differently, leading to inconsistent data point collection. To increase the efficiency, accuracy and consistency of its bridge inspection process, NCDOT implemented a Tablet PC-based mobile inspection system powered by SQL Anywhere from Sybase iAnywhere.
- From the end-user's perspective, integration with NCDOT's
inspection application is seamless and virtually maintenance free, so
inspectors can focus on their inspections rather than on the technology.
- Increases inspection efficiency, accuracy and consistency
- Eliminates paperwork, allowing inspectors to spend more time on inspections
- Makes inspection reports available almost immediately
- Public Sector
Improving the Accuracy and Efficiency of Bridge Inspections
The mission of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) is to "connect people and places in North Carolina safely and efficiently with accountability and environmental sensitivity." One of the department's major activities in support of this mission is the inspection of the state's bridges. The NCDOT Bridge Management Unit is responsible for inspecting more than 18,000 bridges in accordance with federal guidelines. Those guidelines call for each bridge to be inspected every two years. The unit, which includes about 60 inspectors plus 11 independent consulting firms and engineers, also inspects nearly 4,000 related structures including pipes, culverts and overhead signs.
Historically, the inspection process was paper-based. Inspectors, working in two person teams consisting of a team leader and a team member, were assigned bridges to inspect. They were given paper copies of the previous inspection reports as a reference, and would make written notes on their observations and measurements as they conducted their inspections. This process was not particularly efficient and was prone to inaccuracies, as information had to be transferred from the inspectors' handwritten notes into the department's consolidated database. In addition, each inspection team collected data differently, leading to inconsistent data point collection. To increase the efficiency, accuracy and consistency of the bridge inspection process, NCDOT implemented a Tablet PC-based mobile inspection system powered by SQL Anywhere from Sybase iAnywhere.
Replacing a Paper-Based Inspection System
"One of the main focuses for the Bridge Management Unit," explains NCDOT Bridge Maintenance Systems Specialist Walt Tallman, "is to make sure the inspections are done accurately, on time and in a way that enables the department to make a correct analysis of each bridge's condition. It's actually more complex than it seems because there are about 23 different types of inspections that can performed depending on the type of structure being inspected, and no two bridges are built the same way. Among the numerous measurements and observations recorded during a typical inspection are bridge width, bridge height, pile spacing, water depth, pile exposure, asphalt thickness, rail thickness, gap thickness, streambed erosion and much more. Inspectors also take digital photos as they conduct their inspections. To further complicate the process, there can be as many as four or five simultaneous inspections taking place on a bridge."
Because of the efficiency, accuracy and consistency problems inherent in the department's paper-based data collection process, and to make bridge reports available much more quickly, the NCDOT Bridge Management Unit decided to create a mobile inspection application. This application, developed under the leadership of Carson Olin "Lin" Wiggins, Jr., the transportation engineering director for the Central Bridge Maintenance Unit, in collaboration with NCDOT senior managers and bridge inspectors, was originally called V.I.P.E.R. Following his untimely death, Lin's co-workers renamed the application W.I.G.I.N.S. (Wearable Inspection Grading Information Network System).
"I met with the senior management of the Bridge Management Unit," says Tallman, "and they itemized the numerous data points that had to be captured during inspections. Then I spent a lot of time with the bridge inspectors to get an understanding of how they conducted their inspections and what that meant in terms of designing the screens for the application. In a very real sense, they helped design the screens."
The WIGINS Application was developed to run on Windows-based tablet PCs. The inspectors would enter their measurements, observations and load their digital photos. Based on the inspectors' input, the application interface was designed to make it easy to capture the required data points without having to do a lot of scrolling or flipping from screen to screen.
Tallman also knew that for the application to be effective, it needed a robust relational database that could run on the tablet PCs. It also needed the ability to synchronize the data collected on the tablet PCs with the department's consolidated back-end Oracle database.
SQL Anywhere Selected for Reliability, Foolproof Synchronization and Cost-Effectiveness
"I evaluated two data management solutions – Oracle Database Lite and SQL Anywhere from Sybase iAnywhere," says Tallman. "The evaluation and selection process was quite simple and straightforward. I installed both databases on a laptop during development. SQL Anywhere worked immediately, which made the choice an easy one for us."
"In addition to enabling inspectors to consistently collect the 200 or so required data points per bridge," Tallman adds, "we wanted to make it as easy as possible for our inspection teams to synchronize the data they collected with our consolidated Oracle database. MobiLink, SQL Anywhere's synchronization technology, enabled us to do that. All our field inspectors had to do was hit the synchronization button and the process just worked – it was that simple."
For efficiency and security reasons, NCDOT uses a three-tier synchronization process. Each inspection team includes a team leader and a team member, both of whom have a Tablet PC running the WIGINS Application, the SQL Anywhere database and the MobiLink client. Team leaders synchronize their Tablet PCs each morning to get their inspection assignments and previous inspection information. Then, periodically throughout the day, team members synchronize their Tablet PCs with their team leaders' Tablet PCs via a wireless peer-to-peer network. At the end of the day, the team leaders synchronize their Tablet PCs (which also run the MobiLink server) with the consolidated database via wireline LANs.
"Beyond its ease of use, one of the advantages of using MobiLink," says Tallman, "is its ability to automatically recover from connection failures without losing any data. Failure handling is an important part of synchronization in any environment, but especially so in a mobile environment in which connections can frequently be lost or accidentally dropped. With MobiLink, if an upload fails, all of the uploaded changes are rolled back and the whole process stops. Recovery consists of simply running the synchronization process again. The upload stream is reconstructed from scratch and the process is repeated as if it had never been attempted."
MobiLink provides a significant additional feature. It reduces network traffic by reading the remote database transaction log to determine what must be uploaded. Only those rows that have been inserted, updated, or deleted since the last synchronization are sent. If a row is modified more than once between synchronizations, only the final version is uploaded.
Allows Inspectors to Focus on Inspections, Not Technology
NCDOT's SQL Anywhere-powered WIGINS Application has proven to be an absolute success. "The consistency and accuracy of the information collected by our inspectors has significantly improved," says Tallman. "Our inspectors can spend more time inspecting bridges now that paperwork has been eliminated. Thanks to our synchronization capability, inspection reports are available for review almost immediately, whereas it could take weeks for them to show up using the old paper-based system. And because the reports are stored digitally, multiple people can look at a report at the same time.
"From a development perspective," Tallman continues, "SQL Anywhere was easy to install and easy to integrate with our inspection application. It is virtually maintenance free, and very cost-effective since no expensive hardware is required to run the MobiLink server. Most important, though, from the end-user's perspective, all of this technology is invisible. Inspectors can focus on their inspections rather than on the technology, which is the way it should be."