Artificial intelligence (AI) took the world by storm in 2023 when various rapidly-improving text-language models became publicly available. Since then, the human race has delved into the wacky, wild world of AI and faced some pressing questions: how do I trust the content I find online? Is my self-driving car plotting world domination? Will my toaster have a midlife crisis?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District also is facing some of these questions since today’s world is watching bits and bytes come face-to-face with backhoes, bulldozers, and barges. Since other sectors like healthcare, finance, education, automobiles, disability services, astronomy, etcetera etcetera are already using AI, the question becomes where AI’s future is in river navigation, flood damage reduction, emergency management, and other Corps of Engineers missions.
For the uninitiated, AI is a broad term that applies to a range of topics, but the part of AI most-commonly referenced is machine learning. ML feeds a software system massive amounts of training data to learn patterns and model those patterns in its decision-making.
AI generally has two categories: strong and weak. Strong AI is a machine capable of solving problems it has never been trained on, like a person can. Strong AI is what we see in movies – think self-aware androids. This technology does not exist yet.
Weak AI operates within a limited context for limited purposes, such as self-driving cars, conversation bots, and text-to-image simulators. Weak AI is what we see in OpenAI tools like ChatGPT and Dall-E, and the results can be pretty good (as seen in this social media photo):
…but that’s about all it can do.
Granted, AI is a natural progression of technology. What began with search engines is continuing through digital synthesis, and organizations like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District are assessing how it can assuage the opportunities of AI to serve the public better while managing AI’s detractors.
The Corps of Engineers, being a civil works agency, has had some involvement in technological innovations throughout its nearly 250-year history. While the corps was not responsible for the top-line scientific discoveries, it did build the K-25 plant for the Manhattan Project (which, in 1942, was the largest building ever constructed). It later provided construction and design assistance in the 1960s for NASA at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.
However, this is not to say the corps is always at the forefront of modern technology. Much like the district’s 23 locks and dams on the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers – some of which have been around for more than a century – tried-and-true methods that have withstood the test of time do not always necessitate immediately upgrading to the next model.
For instance, Allegheny River Lock 5 in Freeport, Pennsylvania, began operating in 1927 and installed an improved hydraulic system in 2023 to upgrade its resilience. Operators manage the hydraulic system with a touch screen.
The old system, shown here at Allegheny River Lock 6, involved a singular hydraulic system manually operated by levers positioned along the lock wall.
Fun fact: Lock 5 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
“There’s a whole panel of valve indicators, and it’s just like turning a dial,” said Anthony Self, a lock operator on the Allegheny River who has been with the district since 2015. “It’s controlling eight valves at a time to fill the chamber. We have much more precise control.”
The next step is implementing remote lock operations. As part of the Lower Mon construction project on the Monongahela River, Charleroi Locks and Dam is assembling a control tower to consolidate the facility’s locking capabilities to a single touchpoint.
The district is not averse to other types of emergent technology, either. The district’s geospatial office has been using drone technology since the time drones became publicly available, to map aerial footage of regional waterways, conduct inspections, monitor construction, digital surface modeling and more.
“We can even document the spread of harmful algal blooms at reservoirs or fly in emergency response situations during floods,” said Huan Tran, a member of the flight team in the geospatial office.
“We often talk about being a world-class organization, so your technology must be on point. You can’t be behind somebody else’s capabilities,” Kristen Scott, the chief of the geospatial section for the district.
Nevertheless, as AI opens its digital maw as the technological “next step,” the district has not jumped on the AI train…yet.
This is probably for the best – emergent technology is, well, emergent, and the corps doing its job right can sometimes be the difference between life and death.
Take flood-damage reduction, for instance. Pittsburgh District’s 16 flood risk-management reservoirs have prevented more than $14 billion in flood damages in its 26,000-square-mile footprint since their construction nearly a century ago. Regardless of how intelligent AI becomes, the corps will never solely rely on it to make a decision impacting people’s safety.
“It’s a powerful tool, and it’s a good thing, but we’re not empowering automation to take over decision-making or executing plans,” said Al Coglio, the district’s chief of emergency management.
Coglio’s job is critical. He coordinates with FEMA to send teams and emergency generators to areas devastated by natural disasters and left without power.
“We've gotten to the point now where we're saturated with data, and there's no real good way to use it,” said Coglio. “Back when I was growing up, if you wanted to learn something, you had to physically go to a library unless you were in a rich family and had encyclopedias. Now there’s so much information readily available at our fingertips.”
For Coglio, AI has the potential to be a powerful tool for not just the district, if implemented responsibly and can assist in the predicting, planning and prestaging phases of a natural disaster.
“If you look at all the different types of disasters like flooding, tornadoes, historical weather, and historical emergencies resulting from weather, I think automated intelligence can give us a better focus area,” said Coglio. “Even for mapping floods in Pittsburgh, we have general ideas, but what does that do for the average citizen? They’re concerned with if their house floods and automated intelligence can give them the specifics they need to know.”
Despite the opportunities AI presents, some are skeptical about its place in the current cultural conversation.
“I don’t think most people saw the next ‘big thing’ before it was the next ‘big thing,’” said Lt. Col. Daniel Tabacchi, the district’s deputy commander. “Are we lionizing it? Are we overstating the impact or effect AI will have? It’s hard to tell.”
“Then again, I haven’t used it for anything other to make my work easier,” added Tabacchi.
And for others in the district, AI’s advent does not change a thing about their day-to-day work. While any use of AI will always have human oversight, some areas that require boots-on-the-groundwork, such as lock operations, are not applicable.
“Do I think artificial intelligence will ever replace lock operations? No, absolutely not,” said John Dilla, the district’s chief of the Locks and Dams Branch. “It could enhance the data we use for operations and maintenance, but there are minute-to-minute understandings and decisions between lock operators and boat crews that a computer can’t do. People are irreplaceable.”
In the future, the district has opportunities to use artificial intelligence as a tool to serve better the 5.5 million people in its region while capitalizing on advancing technology.
But does AI itself concur?
Well, we asked one. It said this:
“AI, as a cutting-edge tool, has the potential to substantially augment the capabilities of the Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. Its data-driven decision-making, predictive modeling, and resource optimization can optimize infrastructure management, leading to improved public service and resilience in the face of challenges.”
AI seems to agree, but maybe it just wants us to think it agrees.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District awards a nearly $30 million contract to remove the Monongahela River Locks and Dam 3 in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania.
The district awarded the dam removal contract to the Joseph B. Fay Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The work is part of the Lower Monongahela River project, which includes the construction of the larger lock chamber at Locks and Dam 4 at river mile 41.5 near Charleroi and the replacement of the fixed-crest dam with a gated dam at Locks and Dam 2 in Braddock, Pennsylvania.
The work involves a controlled removal of the locks and dam to equalize the upstream and downstream river levels. Corps of Engineers contractors will remove the locks and dam concrete debris and repurpose it to stabilize the facility's land wall and dam abutment, which will remain in place.
“Removing this facility creates 30 miles of unimpeded navigable waterways for everyone navigating the river between Charleroi and Braddock,” said Steve Fritz, the district’s megaproject program manager. “This is a major milestone for the Lower Monongahela River project. Once the dam is completely removed, the project will generate nearly $200 million of average annual benefits for the region and the Nation.”
Physical work to deconstruct the dam is expected to begin in mid-2024. River vessels will continue to use the locks until the dam is completely removed. Following the dam removal, contractors will remove the facility’s locks.
“The Monongahela River is vital to the economic strength of communities across southwestern Pennsylvania,” said U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA). “This lock removal project will allow commerce to flow with greater ease and efficiency, creating jobs and boosting the economy of the Mon Valley and the region in the years to come.”
In June, the district awarded a separate contract to build 73 fish reefs on the Monongahela River to mitigate fish habitat loss caused by removing Locks and Dam 3. The Corps of Engineers expects the reefs to be completed before removing the dam.
Locks and Dams 2, 3, and 4 on the Monongahela River in Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland counties are the three oldest currently-operating navigation facilities on the Monongahela River. These locks experience the highest volume of commercial traffic on the entire Monongahela River navigation system, and the pools created by these facilities provide industrial and municipal water and are popular with recreational boaters.
A groundbreaking ceremony in the Pittsburgh region set the stage for updating the Ohio River’s oldest navigation system.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District welcomed industry, community and political leaders for the ceremony, digging shovels into a pile of dirt at the Montgomery Locks and Dam facility Aug. 11. The event marked the start of a construction project with benefits that will flow into the nation’s economy.
“You’ve probably noticed driving on site today. Construction is already underway,” said Col. Nicholas Melin, the commander of the Pittsburgh District.
“It’s only fitting that we lift our shovels and take this step together continuing the tradition of great partnership,” he said.
Melin shoveled the dirt alongside U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Austin Davis, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania; Mitch Landrieu, senior advisor to the President and White House for infrastructure; Jaime A. Pinkham, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; Mark Gentile, the president of Trumbull Corps; and Mary Ann Bucci, the executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.
“The Southwestern Pennsylvania economy couldn’t function without the Montgomery Locks and Dam. I worked to secure this investment from the infrastructure law so the Army Corps can upgrade the locks and dam to keep commerce flowing through our region,” Casey said.
“This is a celebration of a commitment of investment to a critically important project, not only for Beaver County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, and not only for our commonwealth, but for a significant region of the United States,” he said.
Montgomery is part of the Upper Ohio navigation system, which sees 15 to 20 million tons of materials pass through its river chambers annually. The Upper Ohio Navigation Project is expected to support 28,800 jobs over its construction life, and 5,400 jobs annually after completion.
“The investment we make today will pay dividends, not for years or decades but for generations. Long, long overdue,” Casey said.
Overall, the Pittsburgh District operates 23 locks and dams on the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers, saving shippers and consumers approximately $4 billion in transportation costs compared to using other means such as trucks or rail.
“Our inland waterways are a critical artery sustaining the nation's economy and families by delivering goods to our homes, connecting us to global markets, and bolstering employment. The investments we are making today will reinvigorate navigation and make it resilient to provide significant benefits for years to come,” Pinkham said.
The Corps of Engineers started constructing Montgomery Locks and Dam in 1932 and finished in 1936. The auxiliary lock has reached the end of its operational lifespan and is experiencing structural aging.
Plans for a new chamber will bring new life to the facility thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has provided more than $900 million in funds for construction on the Upper Ohio River.
“What makes this project critical is the potential for structural failure of the lock walls, which would cause major interruption to river transportation,” said Chris Dening, the project manager for the construction of the Upper Ohio project.
“Many of the walls have significant cracking along and across their lengths. We have observed leaking within the lock walls during operation, which confirmed the seriousness of the situation,” Dening said.
If one of the lock walls failed, it would impact operations for several months. An unexpected failure would cause industry shippers to react, scrambling to find new ways to reroute shipments at the last minute.
“The upgrades we are making at Montgomery Locks and Dam are just the first of three major investments to modernize the upper Ohio River navigation system,” said Steve Fritz, the Mega Project program manager for the Pittsburgh District.
“We are building larger, newer, better locks that will provide a resilient navigation system in the Pittsburgh region for the next 100 years,” he said.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided a significant boost to a much-needed infrastructure investment on the upper Ohio River.
In the meantime, the Pittsburgh District has taken several measures to address structural issues to avoid sudden failures. Pittsburgh’s engineers increased the frequency of their inspections at Montgomery and developed contingency plans for any potential emergency.
“However, those contingency efforts are costly, which is why we need to recapitalize the lock with a new construction,” Dening said.
The new locks construction will directly benefit commercial navigation by replacing older, smaller chambers, avoiding future bottlenecks and slowdowns, and saving costs to transportation industries.
“The river navigation system provides a cost-effective method for transporting bulk commodities. It is also environmentally friendly and reduces road congestion,” Dening said.
Transporting commodities on the waterways is four times less expensive than trucks and 33 percent cheaper than rail. Towboats on Pittsburgh’s rivers can push up to 15 barges at once, each carrying the same amount of material as 70 large semi-trucks or 16 rail cars.
The Upper Ohio Navigation project includes three locks: Emsworth, Dashields, and Montgomery, the first three on the Ohio River downstream from Pittsburgh.
The BIL provided $857 million for Montgomery construction and $77 million for Emsworth in 2022.
The 2022 funding places the Ohio River as the second-largest funded infrastructure project within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The BIL helps alleviate the problem of inconsistent funding experienced in the past several decades, which has caused major inflation in timeline and project costs in the past. For example, the district had received only $40 million combined in the five previous years for the Upper Ohio project.
Montgomery is the first facility to receive a larger 600-foot-long by 110-foot-wide lock chamber on the Upper Ohio system. District engineers plan to replace the smaller auxiliary chamber at all three facilities.
“[What] brings us here today is moving commerce from ships to shelves. This is just an incredible waterway that’s critically important to the economy of the entire United States of America,” Landrieu said.
The economic impact of a one-year closure at Montgomery Locks and Dam would cost the U.S. economy nearly $180 million. The roughly 12 million tons of cargo would require over 100,000 railcars or 400,000 trucks to compensate for the closure.
The BIL funded the district for about half of the required cost up front, allowing Pittsburgh to begin work at Montgomery as early as 2024, significantly speeding up the district’s timeline for construction.
The navigation system also plays a vital role in the developing of local industry. The cargo includes mainly coal, but industry also transports coke, petroleum products, raw and finished steel, and aggregates. Various companies use the system to transport large components for construction in the Pittsburgh region.
“Some of these components could not have been transported by other means due to their size,” Dening said.
The average age of the three Upper Ohio facilities is 96 years old, with aging conditions that could lead to major navigation shutdowns. The auxiliary chambers at the three facilities are the smallest on the Ohio River, causing bottlenecks and slowdowns during maintenance periods, proving too small for today’s commercial barges.
The Pittsburgh District has already completed project phases to prepare for the upcoming chamber construction. The plan includes removing the auxiliary chamber to expand the lock size, which will cut into the gated dam currently on the river.
The next phase will bring a batch plant on site, allowing engineers to mix and pour concrete in place much faster than cement trucks. The new lock at Montgomery will require about 400,000 cubic yards of concrete, equivalent to a football field covered nearly 200 feet high, or 1.6 billion pounds. The plant will produce nine different concrete mixes used in various types of construction, such as underwater, structural, and mass concrete, among others. An onsite laboratory will sample and test the concrete to ensure quality.
“It’s taken over a decade of dedicated effort from an interdisciplinary team to get us here today,” Melin said.
“This team has developed and delivered a solid plan that we are now ready to execute,” he said We’re lucky to have the same team moving forward to deliver a quality product that will sustain the navigation needs of this region.”
A lot of soldiers join the Army to impact real change and only some of those soldiers end their service making that dream a reality. For Staff Sgt. Andrew Hill, acquisition, logistics and technology contracting specialist assigned to the 1955th Contracting Support Detachment, 213th Regional Support Group, he was able to do just that.
This year’s Reserve Component Acquisition Summit in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, was a chance for over 200 contracting professionals across the Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserves to gather and improve their craft, network and discuss policies, procedures and more.
Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were one such group in attendance. The USACE provides public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen national security, energize the economy and reduce risks from disasters.
In the USACE’s brief on Active Duty Operational Support opportunities for Army Acquisition Corps Noncommissioned Officers, presenters discussed job requirements and policies around the Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (AL&T) Contracting Noncommissioned Officer role. And while talking about the minimum experience needed to apply, the presenter highlighted why the group was moving away from the regulations—and it’s all because of Staff Sgt. Hill’s work.
Hill is a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard Contracting Team and has singlehandedly made contracting professionals at the highest level in the Guard and Reserves reconsider the policy through his outstanding performance.
Hill applied to a job he wasn’t qualified for on paper, and through networking and perseverance, won the interviewers over so much so that they were willing to take a risk on hiring him. And since that day, Hill has knocked it out of the park.
“Contracting Team Leaders have a difficult task obtaining limited funding at the State level. SSG Hill took it upon himself to create his own path towards completing his contracting certification requirements,” said Capt. Darrin J. Weaver, operations officer for the 1955th Contracting Support Detachment, 213th Regional Support Group.
“His networking efforts with USACE – Pittsburgh District and his outstanding performance during his ADOS assignment have created new pathways forward for future 51C Officers and NCOs,” said Weaver. “USACE is now actively recruiting new graduates from the eight-week Army Acquisition Training Course with no previous contracting experience, thanks to his effort. SSG Hill has proven the AATC course provides the essential contracting knowledge USACE can leverage to achieve win-win-win outcomes for the agency, the Soldier, and the overall readiness of ARNG Contracting Teams.”
Staff Sgt. Hill acknowledges the value of the education he was provided with and credits the organization for his success.
“My performance and accomplishments are a testament to the quality education received from the Army Acquisition Center of Excellence,” Hill said. “The 12-month on-the-job training for the 51C MOS is a requirement for acquisition professionals."
Hill says that his experience serving the commonwealth through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Reserve Component Broadening Program has been a very rewarding experience.
"We provide opportunities and jobs to the American people to ensure the security and wellbeing of our waterways, locks, dams and parks. It is a worthwhile undertaking, which I am honored and proud to be a part of,” said Hill.
Because of the outstanding work Staff Sgt. Hill has done, a memorandum from USACE, Pittsburgh will release across the USACE enterprise to recommend graduates of the AATC course who pass the certification exam for USACE Active Duty Operational Support opportunities. The recommendation includes waiving the 1-year minimum contracting experience.
“Modern armies project power by relying heavily on assistance from contractors,” said Lt. Col. Terry Fetterman, commander of the 1955th Contracting Support Detachment, 213th Regional Support Group. “SSG Hill is a member of one of the Contingency Contracting Teams that award and manage the contracts for supplies, services, and construction. The learning curve for this field requires navigating over 10,000 laws and regulations. That skill can only come through training and experience. Obtaining that experience is not easy for the CCT members. It is only through SSG Hill's tenacity that he managed to overcome the roadblocks thrown his way in getting the necessary experience. His superior efforts and accomplishments bring strong credit to his team and to the 213th Regional Support Group. We are very proud to have him as part of the Pennsylvania CCT team."
And through all of the praise and excitement, Staff Sgt. Hill has kept a level head and nose to the grindstone.
His advice for soldiers looking to make an impact? “The prospects for promotion in the military are high, especially in the acquisitions field, but the dream of making rank should not be the main driver for your efforts.”
Hill continued, “Do all you can to set yourself up for success, develop a passion for your craft, learning and making mistakes are a vital part of growth, and endeavor to excel.”