Life, as we know it today, is made possible by vast networks of critical infrastructure for transportation, water management, resource extraction, property developments, and industries of every kind. The condition of these life-determining facilities can range from new and ultra-modern to aging, decaying, and dangerous. Most installations probably lie somewhere between those two extremes. But exactly where in between? Even in the modern age, the technology for large-scale infrastructure monitoring is antiquated and extremely limited. This is especially true where the instrument of decay is unseen soil moisture beneath and around dams and levees, roadways, rail lines, property developments, and mining operations.
ASTERRA EarthWorks is a recent, groundbreaking advance in remote sensing that uses satellite-based instruments and artificial intelligence to assess threats to ground-based infrastructure from space. With EarthWorks, it is not only possible but practical and affordable, to conduct infrastructure integrity monitoring over vast installations, enabling infrastructure maintenance decisions based on observable data.
As the name suggests, earthen dams and levees are made of earth: compacted dirt and rocks. There are 122,000 such dams in the U.S. and Europe, many between 50 and 100 years old. In the U.S., there are nearly 25,000 miles of earthen levees, designed for water management and flood control. They are also aging, with large and growing populations nearby, and extreme weather events in a changing climate are adding additional stress. Infrastructure failure at this level would be catastrophic. But with the right intelligence on hidden soil moisture, it can also be anticipated and prevented.
Whereas previous technologies could only locate soil moisture in limited, specific areas based on little intelligence, EarthWorks will reveal soil moisture for infrastructure integrity monitoring across the largest systems quickly and efficiently, without field crews digging holes or gathering samples. Preventive infrastructure maintenance can be prioritized accordingly.
Soil moisture is the leading cause of roadway failures, such as sinkholes. And it’s a major cause of rail failure, as moisture-heavy hillsides above and below are subject to collapse. Yet effective infrastructure monitoring of roads and rail lines has been made difficult to impossible by their sheer length. And for roadways, by asphalt pavement hiding the soil moisture beneath.
EarthWorks is undeterred.
With data delivered from sensors orbiting 390 miles above the surface, Earthworks can observe long linear infrastructure easily and quickly. The radar band it uses (known as the L band) can penetrate feet below paved surfaces to see where soil moisture poses a threat. Infrastructure maintenance can be intelligently planned to prevent immediate and future problems.
Mining operations and infrastructure worldwide are highly vulnerable to the impacts of unseen soil moisture that EarthWorks now makes visible. EarthWorks will show where moisture is seeping from waste dams and pipelines, collecting under mining roads and heavy equipment sites, or weakening the hillsides that surround many mines and whose collapse can be deadly. Soil moisture can also contribute to subsidence, or the sinking of the earth, where underground mining infrastructure has collapsed.
Of particular concern for mine operators — not to mention the populations living nearby — is the integrity of earthen toxic waste dams, known as tailings dams. Tailings are the remnants of the mining process, often a toxic sludge, expediently stored in nearby earthen dams where it remains for years. With no long-term plans for safe disposal, this sludge just sits inside the confines of these dams, in the dangerously optimistic hope nothing terrible will happen. Yet terrible things have happened, and the history of tailings dams is one of failure, environmental degradation, and lives lost.
EarthWorks offers technology and intelligence in place of hope. With the ability to assess moisture that may be seeping from these dams, operators can now monitor tailings dams’ integrity and perform the necessary infrastructure maintenance and repair work to protect lives, property, operations, and the environment from the threats posed by tailings dams.
Passenger and freight planes weighing hundreds of tons and traveling more than 150 mph touch down on runways every few minutes, and then continue to roam over acres of pavement. If soil moisture is weakening these surfaces from beneath just as it weakens roadways, how do the people responsible for airport infrastructure maintenance and safety know?
The same question can be asked about many residential and commercial property developments, where large, paved expanses are subject to compromise. And about the charming housing developments built above, below, and right into hillsides. How do we know what’s happening to prevent infrastructure failure?
ASTERRA developed EarthWorks so that the people who need answers to these questions have them in time to act.
With the infrastructure intelligence that EarthWorks provides, managers, safety experts, and engineers can see where critical infrastructure is under threat. Action can then be taken before lives, businesses, and the environment are threatened as well.