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Aerospace

How Small Sensors and Cloud Computing Can Make Infrastructure Safer

23 September 2016

In America we rely heavily on our nation’s infrastructure – the networks of highways, roadways, bridges, ports, railways, energy delivery systems and aviation.

Smart sensors, designed by an engineering team at Washington University, can easily be embedded into infrastructure, allowing bridges, highways and buildings to self-check for damage in case of an earthquaSmart sensors, designed by an engineering team at Washington University, can easily be embedded into infrastructure, allowing bridges, highways and buildings to self-check for damage in case of an earthquaThese systems require an enormous amount of upkeep, and failure to maintain can have a wide range of effects, from financial to safety issues.

That’s why a team of engineers from Washington University in St. Louis is spending some time trying to figure out how to create safer infrastructure. The engineers have turned to cloud computing to develop more intelligent, self-monitoring solutions that can better alert authorities in specific cases of infrastructure failure.

The goal of the team’s project is to create a smart civil infrastructure that can self-monitor, predict any failures in case of an extreme event such as an earthquake or flood, as well as prioritize areas for emergency response.

The engineers will install the first trial system on Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere, this month.

“Right now, the maintenance of infrastructure has an enormous cost,” said Shantanu Chakrabartty, professor of electrical & systems engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science. “It’s hard to know how to prioritize. So if you have data, you can do condition-based maintenance. Depending on which part of a structure is vulnerable, you can assign manpower according to that.”

With support from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the NSF, Chakrabartty’s team at Washington University had previously designed new sensors that could self-generate power from minuscule movements, such as vibration or strain value, in turn eliminating the need for a traditional battery.

Now, the newly developed smart sensors can be embedded into infrastructure, allowing bridges, highways and buildings to self-check for damage in case of an earthquake or another emergency.

According to the team, the sensors could be produced at such low-cost that large numbers of them can be embedded into concrete when roads, bridges and buildings are initially constructed.

The team received a National Science Foundation grant that will fund the construction of a virtual cloud-based structure for the sensors, allowing them to interface with a wireless network so that their information can be accessed quickly and efficiently in case of an emergency such as an earthquake, flood or even terror attack.

The diagram demonstrates how the smart sensor system will work when deployed. Once embedded, the sensors can be scanned and their information shared with a cloud-computing network. This allows maintenance and repairs to be better prioritized, allowing workers to address the most critical needs first. (Image Credit: Washington University in St. Louis) The diagram demonstrates how the smart sensor system will work when deployed. Once embedded, the sensors can be scanned and their information shared with a cloud-computing network. This allows maintenance and repairs to be better prioritized, allowing workers to address the most critical needs first. (Image Credit: Washington University in St. Louis) “These sensors are going to continuously monitor the health of the structure, and if something goes wrong, then it’s going to report that to the cloud,” said Chakrabartty. “You never lose the data. So if something happens, you can go back and see that a certain part of the structure experienced abnormal levels of strain, and then according to that, you can schedule your emergency response and your maintenance.”

According to the team, the technology can be developed and deployed all over for widespread implementation in order to improve people’s lives.

“There is huge potential and benefit for sensors like these on structures beyond the Mackinac Bridge, and we’re excited these prototypes are being tested here,” said Bob Sweeney, executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

To contact the author of this article, email Nicolette.Emmino@ieeeglobalspec.com


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