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ARTICLE IN PRESS

NDT&E International 41 (2008) 6981


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Automatic detection of multiple pavement layers from GPR data


Samer Lahouara,b,, Imad L. Al-Qadic
a

Department of Electronics, Institut Superieur des Sciences Appliquees et de Technologie de Sousse, Cite Taffala, Ibn Khaldoun, Sousse 4003, Tunisia
b
Microelectronic and Instrumentation Laboratory, Faculty of Sciences of Monastir, Tunisia
c
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 205 N Mathews MC 250, Urbana, IL 61801, USA
Received 13 March 2007; received in revised form 7 September 2007; accepted 10 September 2007
Available online 19 September 2007

Abstract
One of the problems encountered in the nondestructive testing of pavements with ground penetrating radar (GPR) is the detection of
multiple-layer reections within the GPR return. Detecting reections is especially problematic when the pavement layers are thin with
respect to the probing pulse width, in which case overlapping between the reected pulses occurs, causing the weak reections to be
masked by the stronger reections in their vicinity. In this study, the problem is solved by iteratively detecting the strong reections
present within the GPR signal using either a threshold or a matched lter detector. The detected pulses are then used in a reection model
to synthesize a signal similar to the measured GPR signal in the least-squares sense. The synthesized signal is then subtracted from the
measured signal to reveal the masked weak reections, which are later detected iteratively using the same method. This technique was
successfully applied to eld GPR data collected from an experimental pavement site: the Virginia Smart Road.
r 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Ground penetrating radar; Multiple layers; Detection; Pavement; Matched lter detector; Threshold detector; Least-squares tting

Contents
1.
2.

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.1. GPR system description . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
2.2. Interface reection detection and time-delay estimation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3. Proposed solution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.1. Threshold detector . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.2. MF detector . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3.3. Performance comparison between the detectors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4. Experimental results. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4.1. Virginia Smart Road . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4.2. Field results and discussion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
4.3. Accuracy estimation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
5. Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Appendix A. Least-squares tting of GPR data to a theoretical reection model . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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Corresponding author. Department of Electronics, Institut Superieur des Sciences Appliquees et de Technologie de Sousse, Cite Taffala, Ibn
Khaldoun, Sousse 4003, Tunisia.
E-mail address: Samer.Lahouar@issatso.rnu.tn (S. Lahouar).

0963-8695/$ - see front matter r 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.ndteint.2007.09.001

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70

1. Introduction
Ground penetrating radar (GPR) [1] is designed
specically to penetrate the ground surface and to look
into the subsurface to locate inhomogeneities within the
investigated dielectric medium. It is currently used in many
areas as a nondestructive investigation tool:






Geophysics, in which GPR is used to estimate the


structure of the earth sediments and to nd the depth of
bedrock, water tables, and such.
Archeology, in which GPR is used to locate buried
archeological structures before digging to prevent their
accidental damage.
Law enforcement, in which GPR is used as an
investigative tool to locate buried bodies and as a safety
tool to locate landmines.
Civil engineering testing, in which GPR is used to assess
the performance of civil structures, such as buildings,
bridges, pavements, and tunnels.

For pavement evaluation, GPR is mainly used to


measure the thicknesses of the various layers composing
a exible pavement system. For new pavements, measuring
the layer thicknesses ensures that the constructed pavement
conforms to the design. For existing pavements, accurate
measurement of layer thicknesses is important for pavement engineers to optimize pavement maintenance or
rehabilitation plans. It should be noted that measurements
of layer thicknesses for old pavements are usually unavailable due to poor documentation or to initial differences
between design and construction.
Although GPR technology has developed, its routine use
for evaluating pavements and bridges remains minimal. In
fact, only a few (approximately 11) Departments of
Transportation (DOT) currently own a GPR system, and
these DOTs do not systematically use GPR in their
Pavement Management System (PMS) decision-making.
The limited use of GPR for pavement evaluation is due
mainly to the lack of reliable automated procedures for
data analysis, as well as the difculty of manually
interpreting the large amounts of GPR data collected
during pavement surveys.
There are three major problems to overcome in order to
automate GPR data analysis for pavement surveys: rst,
detection of the wanted reections in the collected GPR
signal; second, accurate estimation of the reection timedelays; and third, estimation of the mediums dielectric
properties, which are used to estimate the propagation
speed of the electromagnetic (EM) waves within the
pavement system.
In order to facilitate GPR data analysis, a exible
pavement system is usually assumed to be composed of two
distinct layers: a homogeneous hot-mix asphalt (HMA)
layer and a granular base layer [2]. This assumption
reduces the GPR reection detection problem into a
simpler peak search problem. This technique yields an

average HMA thickness error of 7.5% for layer thicknesses


between 50 and 500 mm, as reported by Maser [2]. Loizosa
and Plati [3] reported an average error between 5% and
10%, depending on the utilized dielectric constant estimation technique. In another study, Al-Qadi et al. [4] found
an average thickness error of 2.9% for HMA layers
ranging from 100 to 250 mm. It should be mentioned that
in the latter study, the thickness of the individual HMA
layers, which were composed of a HMA base layer overlaid
by two different HMA intermediate layers, were estimated
during the pavement construction by analyzing the GPR
data collected on each layer after it was constructed,
therefore the HMA layer was not considered homogenous.
Finally, it should be noted that for pavement thickness
estimation from GPR data a thickness error comparable to
2.7% is acceptable since this error is obtained by direct
thickness measurements on a core from different sides as
indicated in [4].
Consequently, in order to increase the accuracy of
pavement layer thicknesses estimated from GPR data, the
reections from all the layers composing the pavement
system should be detected and then taken into account in
the thickness computation. This paper presents a fast and
accurate technique for solving this problem of multiple
layer interface detection from GPR data. Layer dielectric
constant estimation techniques from GPR data are out of
the scope of this study and are discussed in [3,5].
2. Background
2.1. GPR system description
The GPR system used in this study is an ultra-wideband
impulse (or pulsed) radar, which sends a short EM pulse
through an air-coupled antenna to the surface and then
records the reected pulses for a xed period of time
(typically less than 20 ns for pavement surveys). The
reections occur whenever there is a contrast in the
dielectric properties of the surveyed structure. For pavements, a dielectric contrast usually exists either between
two different layers or when a large enough inhomogeneity
(by comparison to the incident signals wavelength) is
present within a layer.
For pavement evaluation, air-coupled antennas are
usually utilized to transmit and receive the GPR signals.
The antennas are mounted at approximately 0.50 m above
ground on the back of the survey van, as shown in Fig. 1,
to allow for highway-speed surveys. The antennas are
usually horn shaped and have a frequency bandwidth of
1 GHz, which corresponds to a pulse width of approximately 1 ns [6]. To increase the spectral efciency of the
antennas, a bipolar bell-shaped pulse (Mexican hat) is used
as the incident GPR signal. This pulse shape achieves a
spectral efciency near 98% for wide bandwidths [7].
Unlike other ultra-wideband radars, where the incident
pulses get distorted when propagating from the transmitter
to the receiver [7], the shapes of the GPR-reected pulses

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71

Amplitude

Tx/Rx
Air, d0

t0

t1

HMA, d1

t2

Base, d2

Time

Subgrade

Fig. 1. GPR survey van and air-coupled horn antennas.

Fig. 2. Ideal GPR reected signal collected from a typical exible


pavement system composed of three layers.

from pavements do not signicantly differ from the


original incident pulse shape. This is due to three main
reasons:

affects the accuracy of the results of the overall GPR


system. In fact, erroneous detection of the reected pulses
within the GPR signal (either false alarms or missed
detections) results in reporting an incorrect number of
layers and, therefore, incorrect layer thicknesses. It should
be noted that the performance of the layer interface
detector is greatly enhanced by applying suitable bandpass
lters to the recorded GPR signals, either during data
collection or during data analysis, in order to reduce the
additive noise n(t). In this study, two bandpass lters were
applied: a lter with a large pass band was applied during
data collection (to ensure that no interesting features are
removed by the lter) and another lter with a narrower
pass band was applied during data processing.





The propagation paths are relatively short for GPR


surveys over pavements. In fact, the two-way propagation paths hardly exceed 2 m in length.
The reecting targets (layer interfaces) are large
compared to the probing signal wavelength.
The dielectric properties of the pavement materials do
not vary signicantly within the GPR bandwidth [8,9].

Consequently, the time domain GPR signal, yr(t), could


be assumed to be composed of a series of scaled and
time-delayed replicas of the incident pulse x(t) as indicated
by [10]
!
N
1
i
X
X
yr t
Ai x t 
tj nt,
(1)
i0

j0

where x(t) is the incident GPR pulse, N is the total number


of layers composing the pavement system, Ai is the relative
amplitude of the reected pulse at the ith interface, n(t) is
additive noise, and tj is the two-way travel time through the
jth layer (with t0 the two-way travel time through air). It
should be noted that this formulation assumes that no
multiple reections from the same interface are present
within the reected signal. This assumption is usually valid
since the layer interfaces are not strong EM reectors.
Fig. 2 shows an ideal GPR reected signal collected from a
typical exible pavement system composed of three layers:
HMA layer, aggregate base layer, and subgrade (original
soil).
In order to analyze GPR data, the individual reected
pulses within the GPR signal should be detected and their
exact time-delays estimated. Detection of layer interface
reections represents one of the most important stages of
GPR data analysis because its outcome considerably

2.2. Interface reflection detection and time-delay estimation


Previous studies showed that detecting multiple pulses
within a signal in the presence of noise can be implemented
optimally using a matched lter (MF) detector [11], which
is designed based on the known incident pulse x(t) [12]. In
the case of an air-coupled GPR system, the incident signal
x(t) is measured by placing a large copper plate (perfect
EM reector with a reection coefcient of 1) underneath
the antenna and then collecting the reected signal, which
represents the negative of the incident signal. The output
signal of the MF would then peak at times corresponding
to the time-delays ti. Thus, the problem of time-delay
estimation is transformed into a simpler problem of local
maxima search on the output signal of the MF. It should
be noted that for this search to be successful (i.e., detection
of all the reected pulses present within the reected
signal), the time-delay between any two successive pulses
should be greater than the duration of the autocorrelation
function (ACF) of the incident signal x(t) [11]. If this
condition is not satised, some peaks in the MF output
would be obscured by the stronger reections in their

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72

Layer 1

r1=4

d1=40mm

Layer 2

r2=5

d2=150mm

2
Surface reflection
4

Layer 4

Layer 5

r3=4
r4=9

r5=11

d3=75mm

d4=150mm

d5=

Overlap
Time (ns)

Layer 3

6
Layer 3/4 reflection

10
Layer 4/5 reflection

12
0

14

Incident

Fig. 3. (a) Typical exible pavement structure of ve layers. (b) Corresponding GPR reected signal (incident GPR pulse is shown in the bottom-right
corner).

vicinity, thus leading to missed detections. The condition


that the time-delay between any successive reected pulses
is greater than the duration of the ACF of the incident
signal is seldom veried for GPR signals collected over
pavements. The reason is that the presence of thin layers
within pavements (e.g., the top wearing surface layer)
usually yields overlapped reected pulses, as depicted in
Fig. 3. This gure shows a ltered GPR reected signal
(Fig. 3b) collected from a ve-layer pavement system
containing two thin layers (Fig. 3a). Hence, the MF cannot
be applied, in this case, reliably to detect all the GPR
reected signals.
Kurtz et al. [13] addressed the problem of detecting
overlapped pulses in the GPR signal by iteratively
subtracting time-delayed and scaled replicas of the incident
pulse x(t) from the reected signal yr(t) for each successfully detected pulse, thus removing the strong reections.
The problem with this technique, however, is that the
amplitude of the subtracted pulse is estimated based on the
amplitude of the detected pulse, which can be different
from the real amplitude because of the overlap with other
pulses in the vicinity [14]. This usually creates spurious
reections in the obtained-difference signal that would be
detected as real reections in the next iterations.
In the case of GPR, detecting layer interface reections
and estimating their corresponding time-delays could be
viewed as a pure estimation problem. With this approach, a
given number of pulses are assumed present within the
GPR reected signal, and an optimal estimator is used to
estimate their respective time-delays and amplitudes. It is
known in estimation theory that one of the most optimal
(i.e., unbiased with minimum variance) and realizable
estimators is the maximum likelihood estimator (MLE)
[15]. Several studies concerning the time-delay estimation
of multiple pulses within a signal have shown that, in the

case of white Gaussian noise, the MLE is equivalent to a


nonlinear least-squares tting (NLS) problem [10,16].
In the time domain, least-squares tting is achieved by
minimizing the error I of Eq. (10) in Appendix A, where the
unknown parameters are the relative amplitudes Ai and
the time-delays ti. Because the time-delays are unknown,
the solution presented in Appendix A is invalid for this
case, and the problem is highly nonlinear with no trivial
solution.
The different solutions proposed for this NLS problem
were mainly focused on reducing the size of the search
space of the unknowns. For example, Li and Wu [10]
reduced the N-dimensional search space of the NLS
problem into a set of N one-dimensional search spaces
over all the possible values of the time-delays. However, it
should be noted that because of the large number of
possible time-delay values, the search space remains, in this
case, relatively large and, thus, the technique is computationally intensive and not suitable for real-time processing.
3. Proposed solution
Appendix A shows that if the reection time-delays, ti,
are known, then the reection amplitudes are optimally
found using least-squares tting, which by denition
guarantees a minimum error between the measured signal,
yr(t), and the modeled signal, yrs(t). Thus, if all possible
reected pulses and their corresponding time-delays are
found, then least-squares tting can be used to select the
optimum set of reection time-delays (among all detected
pulses) that ensures a minimum error between measured,
and modeled signals in the least-squares sense. The
modeled signal found can then be subtracted from the
measured signal to yield a difference signal, d(t), composed
mainly of weak reections originally masked by the

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stronger reections in their surroundings. The detection


process can then be repeated on the difference signal to nd
the time-delays of the weak reections. These time-delays
are then combined with the rst set of time-delays to obtain
the time-delays of all the reected pulses. This stage can be
followed by another least-squares tting operation to nd
the optimum set of reection time-delays that yields a
minimum square error between the measured signal and
the modeled signal. The whole process could be repeated
until no new reections are detected within the difference
signal. The proposed combined detection/estimation technique can be summarized by the following algorithm:
(1) Initialization: assign the measured reected signal yr(t)
to d(t) and set the array of detected time-delays ti to
null.
(2) Use a detector to detect and estimate the time-delay tj
of the strongest pulse present within the signal d(t).
Add the time-delay tj to the set of already detected
time-delays ti.
(3) Use the time-delays ti to nd the optimum synthesized
reected signal yrs(t) that approximates the signal yr(t)
in the least-squares sense as shown by Eqs. (10) and
(16)(18) in Appendix A.
(4) Compute the difference signal d(t) yr(t)-yrs(t).
(5) Repeat at step (2) until no more pulses are detected in
the signal d(t).
(6) Determine the optimum subset of time-delays among
the set ti that yields a minimum least-squares error
between the measured signal yr(t) and the synthesized
signal yrs(t). This step is introduced to remove all false
alarms reported by the detector.
(7) Determine the reection amplitudes Ai from the
optimum least-squares t found in step (6).
According to the aforementioned algorithm, leastsquares tting is used to correct any detection errors made
by the detector; therefore, the detection stage can be
realized by different detectors, even if they do not have
high performance. It should be noted, however, that the
only errors that would be corrected at the least-squares
stage are the false alarms. Thus, the detector should have a
high probability of detection without severe constraints on
the probability of false alarm. Another requirement that
should be met by the detector is that it should be
independent of the reected pulses amplitudes since the
exact amplitudes would be, in turn, determined based on
the detected time-delays as explained in Appendix A. Thus
an error in the time-delays estimation would produce a bad
curve tting and, therefore, errors in estimated amplitudes,
especially if pulses with similar amplitudes are overlapped.
However, since in GPR data (Fig. 3b) strong pulses would
usually mask weaker pulses (due to the wave attenuation
through the pavement materials and the low contrast in the
dielectric constants within the same material where thin
layers are found), the effect of the amplitude on the
detector performance would be minimized.

73

Different types of detectors can be used in the detection


stage (step 2 in the algorithm) of the proposed technique.
In this study a threshold detector and a MF detector were
considered.
3.1. Threshold detector
The simplest detector that can be used to detect a signal
embedded in noise is a threshold detector. A threshold
detector compares the level of the analyzed signal to a xed
threshold; then it declares the signal present or absent
depending on whether or not the analyzed signals level
exceeds a specied threshold. This detection technique
assumes that the minimum detectable reections are above
noise level, which can usually be used as a suitable value for
the threshold.
For the case of GPR data, since the reected pulses
might have different polarities than the incident pulse
(depending on the dielectric properties of the pavement
materials), two thresholds should be used: a positive
threshold to detect positive reections and a negative
threshold to detect negative reections. Due to the shape
of the GPR pulses (see Fig. 3), this approach would lead to
the detection of at least three separate peaks (one positive
peak surrounded by two negative peaks or vice versa)
corresponding to each reected pulse. Although the
obtained peaks can be grouped together to form the actual
detected pulses, this procedure is cumbersome because a
different number of peaks are detected for each pulse,
especially for low amplitude reections.
The multiple-peaks problem could be eliminated in
this case if an envelope detector were used before the
threshold detector. Envelop detectors are commonly
used in amplitude modulation (AM) communication
systems to extract the modulation envelope and to reject
the high frequency carrier signal [17]. Even though GPR
signals are composed of ultra-wide band pulses that do not
have a carrier frequency, an envelope detector applied to
this type of signals would still extract the envelope
describing the variations of their amplitude. Mathematically, the real envelope xe(t) of any real signal x(t) is dened
as the magnitude of the corresponding analytic signal, as
given by [17]
^
xe t jxa tj jxt j xtj,

(2)

^ are the analytical signal and Hilbert


where xa(t) and xt
transform [17] of the signal x(t), respectively.
With an envelope detector, a pulse is declared detected if
the amplitude of the analyzed signals envelope exceeds a
xed threshold selected above noise level. Since the
envelope of a signal is always positive by denition, only
a positive threshold value is used. Fig. 4 shows the output
of an envelope detector for a typical GPR signal along with
the reported detected pulses.
An algorithm that can be used to nd the local maxima
(corresponding to the reected pulses) of the envelope of
the analyzed GPR signal is as follows:

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74
12000

Detections

10000

Envelope
Original Signal

8000

Amplitude

6000
Threshold

4000
2000
0
-2000
-4000
-6000
-8000
0

10

12

14

Time (ns)

Fig. 4. Typical detections obtained after applying an envelope detector followed by a threshold detector.

(1) compute the real envelope of the difference signal d(t)


using Eq. (2);
(2) nd the maximum value of the envelope;
(3) compare the maximum value found to the selected
threshold vt. If the maximum value is less than the
threshold, then terminate the detection procedure;
otherwise, take the time-delay of the maximum value
as the time-delay tj of the detected pulse.
For radar data analysis, the threshold value used by
the threshold detector is generally selected based on the
NeymanPearson criterion [12]. With this criterion, the
probability of false alarm is chosen as large as tolerable by
the application. The detector is then designed to maximize
the probability of detection. If the noise embedded in the
GPR signal is assumed to be white Gaussian with a
variance s2, then at the output the envelope detector will
have a Rayleigh probability density function [2], given as
follows:


u
u2
pu 2 exp  2 ; with uX0.
(3)
s
2s
When the noise level exceeds the selected threshold
value, a false alarm error is produced. Therefore, the
probability of false alarm Pf is the probability that the
noise exceeds the threshold, which is given from Eq. (3) as


Z 1
r
r2
exp

Pf pvt oro1
dr
2
2s2
vt s


v2t
exp  2 ,
4
2s
where vt is the selected threshold. From Eq. (4), the
detector threshold can be found as a function of the
probability of false alarm according to the following:
p
vt 2s2 log Pf .
(5)
Eq. (5) shows the dependence of the threshold used in
the detection procedure on noise power. Practically, the
noise variance s2 could be estimated from the processed

GPR signal by assuming that a segment at the end of the


signal is composed of noise only (as in Fig. 4 for the signal
portion after 12 ns). This assumption is usually valid for
GPR data collected over pavements since a buffer zone
is added to the range of the deepest detectable layer to
ensure that all interfaces would be detected if the layer
thicknesses increase unexpectedly.
3.2. MF detector
An optimal detector that can be used to decide between
the presence or absence of a known signal x(t) embedded in
white Gaussian noise of variance s2 is the MF. The impulse
response h(t) of the MF is given by [12]
ht xT  t,

(6)

where T is the duration of the signal x(t) introduced to


make the lter h(t) causal. It can be shown that at time T
the MF output exhibits a maximum signal-to-noise ratio
(SNR) [12]. Using the MF detector, a signal x(t) is declared
present if the corresponding MF output exceeds a xed
threshold St at time T. In this case, the MF output would
have a maximum (or a minimum, depending on whether
the polarity of the detected signal is reversed compared to
the original signal or not) at time T. Using this property of
the MF, the following algorithm for detecting multiple
reected pulses within the difference signal d(t) could be
derived:
(1) compute the MF impulse response h(t) using Eq. (6);
(2) lter the signal d(t) using h(t) to obtain the ltered
signal yMF(t);
(3) nd the maximum absolute value ymaxMF of yMF(t) and
its corresponding time sample tmax;
(4) compare the value ymaxMF to the threshold St. If
ymaxMF is less than St, then terminate the detection
procedure; otherwise, the value (tmaxT) corresponds
to the travel time tj of the strongest reection present
within yr(t).

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d(t)
yMF(t)
Travel time tj
ymaxMF

Amplitude

Iteration 1

Iteration 2
Iteration 3
Iteration 4
Iteration 5

100

200

300

400

500

Time (samples)

Fig. 5. Iterative detection procedure for a ve-layer structure.

Fig. 5 shows ve iterations of the difference signal d(t)


and the MF output yMF(t) used to detect the individual
reected pulses from a GPR signal collected from the velayered pavement structure shown in Fig. 3a.
As for the envelope detector, the threshold St used with
the MF is determined from the maximum tolerable
probability of false alarm Pf based on the Neyman
Pearson criterion. It can be shown that St is given by [14]
p
S t erfc1 Pf s2 E ,
(7)
where E is the total energy of the known signal x(t) and
erfc1(u) is the inverse complementary error function
dened as erfc(u) 0.5erf(u), with erf(u) is the error
function dened in [18]. In this case, the noise power s2
could be estimated from the reected signal yr(t) by
assuming that the trailing part of the signal is composed
of noise only.
3.3. Performance comparison between the detectors
Typically, the performance of a detector is evaluated
using the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) [12],
which gives the detectors probability of detection versus its
probability of false alarm for various values of the SNR. A
good detector should have a probability of detection near
one and a probability of false alarm near zero, even for low
values of SNR. If the ROC curves cannot be found
theoretically, they are usually estimated using simulation
techniques such as the Monte Carlo simulation.
Practically, it is difcult to estimate the ROC of a given
detector from eld GPR data. The difculties arise from
the following points:

The accuracy of the time-delays reported by the detector


cannot be checked experimentally since the true timedelays are difcult to nd, especially when overlap
occurs between the reected pulses, as in Fig. 2. This

75

leads to an inability to experimentally estimate the


probability of detection.
There is no control over the SNR of the reected GPR
signals. The only way to change the SNR of the
processed signal is to add randomly generated noise to
it. This operation would not give an accurate estimate of
the detector performance since the processed data would
be simulated data rather than real eld data.

A more appropriate method for comparing the performance of the detectors when applied to eld GPR data is to
use the square error ratio (SER), dened as follows:
"
#,
M1
M1
X
X
2
SER
yr t  yrs t
yr t2 ,
(8)
t0

t0

where yr(t) is the measured GPR signal, M the number of


samples in yr(t), and yrs(t) is a synthesized signal obtained
by tting the detected pulses to the reection model in the
least-squares sense as shown in Appendix A. According to
this denition, it is seen that the smaller the SER, the
higher the similarity between the measured GPR signal and
the synthesized signal. The high similarity between the
signals translates, in turn, to a more accurate estimation of
the reection time-delays.
Another parameter that could be considered to be a
good indicator of the detectors performance is the number
of detected layers N. In fact, if the number of layers
composing the pavement is known a priori, then the
number of detected layers would indicate the occurrence of
false alarms if the reported number is greater than the
known number and missed detections in the converse case.
A large number of detected layers could also indicate the
presence of distress within the pavement system, especially
for in-service pavements.
4. Experimental results
In order to assess the performance of the threshold and
the MF detectors to detect and estimate the time-delays of
the reected pulses in GPR signals, they were used to
process eld GPR data collected from a known experimental pavement site: the Virginia Smart Road.
4.1. Virginia Smart Road
The Virginia Smart Road, located in southwest Virginia,
is a unique, state-of-the-art, full-scale research facility for
pavement research and evaluation of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). The completed facility will consist of a
9.6-km connector highway between State Route 460 in
Blacksburg, Virginia and Interstate 81. The rst 3.2 km
currently serve as a controlled test facility. The pavement
research facility includes 12 different sections that are each
approximately 100 m long. The pavement performance of all
the 12 sections is closely monitored through a complex array
of sensors (strain gages, pressure cells, thermocouples, etc.)

ARTICLE IN PRESS
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76

Table 1
Pavement designs used at the Virginia Smart Road
Section

Wearing surface
(mm)

Base HMA BM25.0 (mm)

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L

38
38
38
38
38
38
38
38
38
38
38
38

150
150
150
150
225
150
100
100
100
225
244
150

Base HMA SM9.5A (mm)

50
50
50

OGDLa (mm)

21-Ab Aggregate
(mm)

21-B Aggregate
(mm)

75
75
75
75

150
150
150
150
150
150
150
150
150

175
175
175
175
75
150
150
75
75
150
150
75

75
75
75
75
75

150

Open graded drainage layer.


Cement stabilized base.

embedded in the pavement and networked to an onsite


control room where the data is collected [19]. The pavement
designs of the 12 Smart Road exible sections are
summarized in Table 1 (all designations are in accordance
with Virginia Department of Transportation specications).
4.2. Field results and discussion
To compare the performance of the threshold detector to
that of the MF detector, a large set of GPR data
(approximately 1250 scans per pavement section, i.e.
15,000 scans in total) collected over different periods of
time from the exible sections at the Virginia Smart Road
were used. The data were collected using a 1 GHz aircoupled antenna at a spatial frequency of 10 scans/m.
Before applying the detectors, the data was preprocessed
using a 2 GHz lowpass lter to remove any additive noise
without affecting the reections of interest. Then, for each
collected scan, both detectors were applied with various
probabilities of false alarm ranging from 1016 to 0.4, and
the SER and the number of detected layers N were
recorded. The results were then averaged over sections with
similar numbers of layers and layer thicknesses. The
sections that were considered analogous for this analysis
are summarized in Table 2. The number of layers presented
in this table represents the number of layers with sufcient
contrast in their dielectric constants to produce a
detectable reection in the GPR signal. Since layer
thicknesses inuence the degree of overlap between the
successive reected pulses and, thus, might affect the
performance of the detector, sections with different layer
thicknesses were considered dissimilar even if they had an
equal number of layers. A layer is considered thin or thick
depending on whether its thickness is less or greater than
the GPR resolution in that layer, which is dened by [14]
cT
Dd p ,
2 r

(9)

Table 2
Sections used for detector performance evaluation
Sections

Number of detectable layers

Comments

3 (WS, BM-25.0, Base)

A, B, C, D, J,
L
F
G
H

4 (WS, BM-25.0, OGDL,


Base)
3 (WS, BM-25.0, Base)
4 (WS, BM-25.0, SM, Base)
5 (WS, BM-25.0, SM, OGDL,
Base)

Thick layers except for


WS
Thick layers except for
WS
Thin layers
Thin layers
Thin layers

where Dd is the GPR resolution, c is the speed of light in


free space, T is the incident pulse width, and er is the
dielectric constant of the considered layer.
The variations of the average SER and the average
number of detected layers N versus the probability of false
alarm found with the threshold and the MF detectors are
presented in Fig. 6a through Fig. 6e for the ve layer
categories of Table 2, respectively. The x-axis in these
gures represents the probability of false alarm in
logarithmic scale. Based on Fig. 6, it is found that for all
the cases studied and with both detectors, the SER
increases as the probability of false alarm decreases,
whereas the number of detected layers N decreases and
converges to the real number of layers. Hence, a minimum
SER between the measured and synthesized GPR signals is
equivalent, in all cases, to the detection of a number of
layers greater than the real number (i.e., high false alarm
rate). This result is similar to what is found in the ROC,
where a high probability of detection produces a high
probability of false alarm. Therefore, for a correct
evaluation of the detectors performance, both the SER
and the average number of detected layers N should be
used jointly.
For the cases of three and four thick layers and the case
of three thin layers, the performance results depicted in

ARTICLE IN PRESS
S. Lahouar, I.L. Al-Qadi / NDT&E International 41 (2008) 6981

2.3

4.4

2.2

4.3

1.2

3.4

1.0

3.2
1E-14

1E-12

1E-10

1E-08
Pf

1E-06

1E-04

1E-02

1.7
1E-16

2.2

4.2

2.0

4.0

1.8

3.8

1.6

3.6

1.4

1E-14

1E-12

1E-10

3.2
1E-08
Pf

SER (%)

1.0
1E-16

3.4

SER (MF)
SER (Threshold)
N (MF)
N (Threshold)

1.2

1E-06

2.4
2.3
2.2
2.1
2.0
1.9
1.8
1.7
1.6
1.5
1.4
1E-16

1E-04

1E-02

3.0
1E+00

2.4
2.3
2.2
2.1
2.0
1.9
1.8
1.7
1.6
1.5
1.4
1E-16

1E-14

1E-12

1E-12

1E-10

1E-08
Pf

1E-06

1E-10

1E-08
Pf

1E-06

4.0

1E-04

3.8
1E-02 1E+00

1E-04

4.4
4.3
4.2
4.1
4.0
3.9
3.8
3.7
3.6
3.5
3.4
1E+00

SER (MF)
SER (Threshold)
N (MF)
N (Threshold)

1E-14

1E-12

1E-10

1E-02

4.4
4.3
4.2
4.1
4.0
3.9
3.8
3.7
3.6
3.5
3.4
1E+00

SER (MF)
SER (Threshold)
N (MF)
N (Threshold)

1E-14

4.1

3.9

1.8

4.4

SER (MF)
SER (Threshold)
N (MF)
N (Threshold)

2.0
1.9

3.0
1E+00

2.4

4.2

2.1

1E-04

1E-08
Pf

1E-06

1E-02

3.6

4.0
3.8

1.4

0.8
1E-16

SER (%)

4.5

1.6

2.4

SER (%)

1.8

4.2

SER (%)

SER (MF)
SER (Threshold)
N (MF)
N (Threshold)

SER (%)

2.0

77

Fig. 6. Comparison between the performance of the threshold and the matched lter detectors: (a) 3, (b) 4 thick layers, (c) 3, (d) 4 and (e) 5 thin layers.

Fig. 6ac respectively, show that the MF detector outperforms the threshold detector. In fact, in all three cases, the
SER that results from the MF detector is lower than the
one resulting from the threshold detector for all probabilities of false alarm. At the same time, the number of
detected layers is higher than the real number of layers (i.e.,
three or four) for both detectors for high probabilities of
false alarm, but it converges to the real number of layers
for lower probabilities of false alarm. Thus, when the
probability of false alarm Pf is suitably selected, the
reections detected by the MF would be better approximations of the real reections than those detected by the
threshold detector. The relatively large difference in the
SER of the two detectors is a good indicator that some of
the interface reections detected by the threshold detector
do not correspond to real reections, even though the
number of detected layers is almost equal for the low
probabilities of false alarm.

In contrast, the performance results illustrated in Fig. 6d


and e show that the threshold detector outperforms
the MF detector for the cases of four and ve thin
layers. In fact, these gures show that the SER found by
the MF is higher than the SER found by the threshold
detector for all Pf values. Moreover, for the MF, it is
noticed that the number of detected layers decreases
below the real number of layers for the low false
alarm probability values. This result is an indication of
missed detections if the probability of false alarm is
not chosen adequately. At the same time, the average
number of layers detected by the threshold detector is
higher than the real number of layers for high probabilities
of false alarm, but it converges toward the true number
of layers when the probability of false alarm decreases.
The same variations of the average number of detected
layers are observed for the ve thin layers (Fig. 6c),
except that, in this case, the number of layers reported by

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78

GPR Signal
Generated Signal
Detected Peaks
Section A, SER = 0.9%

Amplitude

Section E, SER = 1.1%

Section F, SER = 1.7%

Section G, SER = 1.0%

Section H, SER = 1.1%

10
Time (ns)

12

14

16

18

20

Fig. 7. Reected GPR signals, detected pulses, and generated signals for the ve different pavement sections.

both detectors (maximum average of 4.25 layers for the


MF and 4.30 layers for the threshold detector) is less than
the real number of layers (i.e., ve), even for high
probabilities of false alarm. Hence, both detectors failed
in this situation to detect all the layers composing the
pavement, yet the threshold detector still shows a better
performance than the MF for any Pf value.
The degradation in the MF detector performance
compared to that of the threshold detector, when the
number of layers composing the pavement system increases
and the layers are relatively thin, could be explained by
the breakdown of the assumptions made in the derivation
of the MF detector. In fact, to get a high MF detection
performance, the pulses that compose the reected GPR
signals should not deviate very much from the incident
pulse x(t). This condition is usually more difcult to
satisfy for thin layers because of the overlap between
consecutive reections, which distorts the pulse shape.
These distortions generally grow more severe as the
layers become thinner and their number increases. Nevertheless, when only one thin layer is present, the performance of the MF is not degraded much and, indeed,
it outperforms the threshold detector (as in the cases of
Fig. 6a and b).
Finally, it should be noted that with both detectors,
the probability of false alarm, Pf, should be adequately
chosen in order to be able to detect the correct interface
reections and, thus, the correct number of layers. If the
real number of layers is a priori known, the probability of
false alarm should be chosen so that the number of layers
reported by the detector equals the real number of layers.
However, if the real number of layers is unknown, the
probability of false alarm should be chosen as the lowest

possible value that would yield a number of layers


converging to a constant value (versus the probability of
false alarm).
The results of applying the adequate detector (threshold
or MF) to one GPR scan taken from each of the ve
sections are presented in Fig. 7. The detectors were applied
using a probability of false alarm, Pf, equal 103. Fig. 7
shows also all the detected peaks for each scan, along with
the signal generated based on least-squares tting. For the
ve sections, the maximum SER found for all sections was
about 1.7%.
4.3. Accuracy estimation
To estimate the accuracy of the multiple reections
detection procedure, the outlined algorithms were applied
to GPR signals collected from marked locations at
different sections of the Virginia Smart Road, where cores
were later taken for direct thickness measurements. The
GPR data was also processed using the classic detection
method where only the strong reections are detected (i.e.,
considering the HMA layers as a single homogeneous
layer). The results obtained by the two methods are
presented in Table 3.
In Table 3, the single thickness represents the
thickness estimated from GPR data by considering all
HMA layers as a single homogeneous layer. In contrast,
the multiple thickness represents the total thickness
found after detecting all detectable reections within the
HMA layers, estimating the dielectric constant and
thickness of all the layers, and then adding them together.
For both results the dielectric constants of the layers were
estimated based on the detected reection amplitudes as

ARTICLE IN PRESS
S. Lahouar, I.L. Al-Qadi / NDT&E International 41 (2008) 6981
Table 3
Accuracy estimation of the multiple reections detection compared to the
single detection
Core #

HMA thick (mm)

A1
A2
A3
A4
B2
D1
D2
E1
E2
F1
F2
F3
G1
G2
H2
J1
J2

Error (%)

Core

Single

Multiple

Single

Multiple

282
273
266
268
283
276
265
292
285
211
210
206
195
204
286
286
355

313
276
259
252
322
315
301
317
302
247
247
239
209
214
302
330
405

272
276
259
252
266
271
255
298
283
211
211
204
193
202
270
292
367

10.9
1.1
2.8
5.9
13.9
14.3
13.4
8.6
5.8
16.9
17.4
16.2
7.2
4.9
5.7
15.3
14.2

3.7
1.1
2.8
5.9
5.9
1.7
3.9
2.1
0.8
0.2
0.3
0.8
1.0
1.0
5.5
2.0
3.5

10.2

2.5

Average absolute error (%)

described in [5]. As indicated in Table 3, the multiple


detection technique is more accurate (2.5% average
absolute thickness error) than the classic technique
(10.2% error). The enhancement in the thickness error is
essentially due to:

Better estimation of the dielectric constants since the


reection amplitudes, on which the dielectric constant
computation is based, are computed after least-squares
tting.
The dielectric constant of each layer is considered in the
computation of the thickness instead of considering a
single dielectric constant for all the layers.

79

5. Conclusion
A technique to automatically detect all detectable
reections, including masked weak reections, within
GPR signals was presented. In particular, it was shown
that, depending on the thicknesses and the number of
layers composing a pavement system, different types of
detectors should be used to locate the interface reections
in the GPR signal. Specically, if most of the pavement
layers are thick, a MF detector would be the optimal
detector to use. However, if multiple thin layers are part of
the pavement system, a threshold detector should be used.
For detection purposes, the pavement layers are considered
thin or thick by comparison to the GPR pulse width. To
detect the reections from all the layers in the pavement
system, the detector should be applied iteratively. After
each iteration, the time-delays of the detected pulses are
used to generate a signal comparable to the GPR signal in
the least-squares sense. The synthesized signal is then
subtracted from the measured GPR signal to expose the
weak reections initially masked by the stronger reections
in their vicinity. Experimental results on eld data using
both detectors showed promising results. In fact, by
comparing the GPR results to thicknesses measured
directly on cores an average absolute thickness error of
2.5% was found when all reections were detected. This
error increased to 10.2% when only the strong reections
were considered in the analysis.

Acknowledgments
This research is based upon work supported by the
National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9457978.
Any opinions, ndings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reect the views of the National
Science Foundation. The assistance of Amara Loulizi,
Thomas Freeman, and William Hobbs in this work is
greatly appreciated.

Appendix A. Least-squares tting of GPR data to a theoretical reection model


As shown by Eq. (1), the reected GPR signal can be modeled, without the additive noise term, as follows:
!
N
1
n
X
X
yrs t
An x t 
ti .
n0

(10)

i0

If the number of layers N are assumed known and the two-way travel times ti are estimated from the measured GPR
signal yr(t), then the only model parameters that need to be estimated are the reection amplitudes An.
The sum of squares of the error between the measured GPR signal yr(t) and the signal computed from the model given by
(10) is calculated as follows:
"
! #2
N
1
n
X
X
X
yr t 
An x t 
ti
:
(11)
I
t

n0

i0

To achieve a minimum mean-square error (MSE) between the measured and modeled GPR signals, the sum of squared
errors given by (11) should be minimized with respect to all the model parameters An. Thus, the partial derivatives of I with

ARTICLE IN PRESS
S. Lahouar, I.L. Al-Qadi / NDT&E International 41 (2008) 6981

80

respect to the parameters An should be set to zero:


"
!#
!
N
1
n
k
X
X
X
X
qI
2
yr t 
An x t 
ti
ti 0;
x t
qAk
t
n0
i0
i0
Rearranging and simplifying (12) leads to the following:
!
!
!
N
1
n
k
k
X
X
X
X
X
X
An
x t
ti x t 
ti
yr tx t 
ti ;
t

n0

i0

i0

for k 0; . . . ; N  1.

(12)

for k 0; . . . ; N  1.

(13)

i0

Eq. (13) could be expanded in the form of a set of equations according to:
P
xt  t0      tN1 xt  t0
yr txt  t0
t
t
t
P
P
P
A0 xt  t0 xt  t0  t1    AN1 xt  t0     tN1 xt  t0  t1
yr txt  t0  t1

8
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
<

A0

x2 t  t0    AN1

..
.

>
>
>
>
>
P
P
P 2
>
>
>
yr txt  t0      tN1
: A0 xt  t0 xt  t0      tN1    AN1 x t  t0      tN1
t

(14)

which is equivalent in a matrix format to:


(15)

MA Y,
where

A A0
"
Y

A1



AN1

yr txt  t0

(16)

yr txt  t0  t1

T

#T
yr txt  t0  t1      tN1

(17)

x2 t  t0

6
P
6
xt  t0 xt  t0  t1
6
6
t
M6
6
..
6
.
6
4P
xt  t0 xt  t0      tN1

xt  t0  t1 xt  t0
P 2
x t  t0  t1



P
t

..
.
P
xt  t0  t1 xt  t0      tN1
t



..

.


xt  t0      tN1 xt  t0

7
xt  t0      tN1 xt  t0  t1 7
7
7
7.
7
..
7
.
7
P 2
5
x t  t0      tN1
t

(18)
Thus the model parameters An that ensure a minimum MSE between the measured GPR signal yr(t) and the theoretical
signal yrs(t) could be determined according to:
A M1 Y.

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