Debates Stay Mum on Smart Tools

Dr. John Bartlit
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Column of March 6,  2016,  Los Alamos Monitor

Image BP’s lengthy oil spill in the Gulf and the Keystone Pipeline are issues long familiar to people of all walks. In sharp contrast, who ever heard of Structural Health Monitoring?

I first heard the term just two months ago. I was quickly amazed to see the extent of new techniques available to guard against leaky oil pipes of all kinds. Why does anything so relevant stay hidden from public news?  

Structural Health Monitoring (SHM) is well explained in Wikipedia. SHM refers to methods of gauging damage in materials and other safety aspects of engineered structures. Devices tied into structures detect changes as materials age. From the changes, computing parts assess safety. Call them “smart tools.”  

The tools can check and report frequently on the well-being of structures such as bridges, airplanes and pipelines. The results, in turn, point to in-situ methods of timely repair. “In-situ” repair means repairing in place without tearing things open.  

SHM is no mere glint on the horizon. It thrives now and keeps improving. The discipline of SHM has an international society of its own with its own technical journal. The 10th International Workshop on SHM was held last fall at Stanford University. Princeton offers a graduate course in SHM. The topic clearly has history and substance.  

You might think the clashes over pipelines would shine light on such know-how. It is not the case. The customs of public dispute have a different focus.  

Look at the coverage of the Keystone Pipeline, pro and con. Why did the debate pound away for so long about the great risks of oil leaks and the perfect safety of the line, with so little told about smart tools that can monitor and keep reporting the health of the pipeline?  

Why do remedies stay out of sight in politics? I too am guilty, because I only heard of SHM last December. Most of us have the same excuse.  

Yet, think of the mighty void that is spread by debating in slogans. We hear versions of “The risks are dire” vs. “No harm can happen.” The only options shown are “nay” or “yea.”  

In ad wars, both sides fail to roll out the third option. A few words could say “flaws and wear occur so apply smart safeguards.” It makes poor sense to keep this option stashed deep in the dark.  

But mind the good news too. Hints are in the air that Structural Health Monitoring may yet end the weary politics of wasting new technical tools.  

To restrict failures, working aircraft have to pass sets of rigid safety inspections. Federal rules specify 100-hour inspections, annual inspections and progressive inspections, which vary with how the plane is used.  

The airline industry is putting ample resources into smart tools for aircraft inspections that work better, faster and cheaper. See what has come.  

Automated inspections are always more timely than inspecting from time to time. On-the-spot reports help more than reporting inspections done every so often. Instant alarms are easily sent, day or night.  

Research asks questions about inspecting aircraft and finds answers. Airlines now research answers to regulatory aspects of SHM, to help speed the approval of rules that do the job better at less cost.  

You heard right. A regulated industry spends money devising better ways to regulate! 

Change is afoot. A new era stands by.  

Regulatory hearings in the old pattern are dusky events that dwell on the losses caused by no regulation and the losses caused by regulation.  

Contrast this with a hearing in the new pattern on aircraft inspection regulations. A regulated industry uses its research results to push for regulations that do more good, faster, for less.  

Others will follow the lead.