A partnership of researchers from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the University of Kansas School of Engineering, is working to reinforce American dams and levees using fiber-reinforced polymers (FRPs) and sensors. 

Explaining the project and its goals, Caroline Bennett, Dean R. and Florence W. Frisbie Associate Chair of Graduate Studies at KU, said, “The project focuses on developing repairs and retrofits for the inventory of concrete dams in the U.S., with an emphasis on efficient damage detection. In addition to repair methods, we’ll be using fiber-reinforced polymer materials, or FRPs, to address damage. Specifically, we’re targeting sliding at lift joints, restraining rocking between crest block and dam body during seismic loading, and damage on concrete spillways of dams. Our goal is to extend the usable lives of existing concrete dam infrastructure, which was mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s.” 

Not only are the researchers developing advanced materials to support the damaged infrastructure, the team is also using advanced artificial intelligence to assess the need for repairs. This process led the team to develop a new means of monitoring the dams and levees after repairs by embedding sensors. 

“Once the repair is done, these locations are no longer inspectable,” said Jian Li, Francis M. Thomas Chair’s Council Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental & Architectural Engineering at KU. “Therefore, we’ll also develop self-sensing FRP repairs to enable continued monitoring of the repaired regions to ensure long-term safety. By leveraging emerging technologies including artificial intelligence, computer vision and advanced sensing, our research will greatly enhance timely repair, retrofit and maintenance of the nation’s large inventory of concrete dams.” 

Taking a longer-term view, Bennett added, “Our systems of dams and levees is responsible for ensuring we have navigable waterways and that we have reliable water sources for drinking water as well. We’re not really building new dams anymore, so it has become critical to maintain our existing inventory of dams from both a safety perspective, for drinking water, as well as navigability of our waterways. It’s very important to the safe functioning of our infrastructure, from a life-safety standpoint, but also from an economic and transportation standpoint.”