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Today, bridge inspectors rely mostly on their eyes to determine if a structure is sound.
But what if the bridge could talk, pointing out its stress points before they cracked? That is the goal of a five-year, $19-million engineering project to create “smart” bridges.
An infrastructure monitoring system is being developed at the University of Michigan, with plans to install them on several test bridges. The system will include several different types of surface and penetrating sensors to detect cracks, corrosion and other signs of weakness. It would also measure the effects of heavy trucks on bridges, a task that is currently impossible.
Through enhanced antennas and the Internet, the system would relay the information it gathers to an inspector on-site or in an office.
Funded in large part by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Technology Innovation Program, the project involves University of Michigan researchers and engineers at five private firms.
“This project will accelerate the field of structural health monitoring and ultimately improve the safety of the nation’s aging bridges and other infrastructures,” said University of Michigan’s Jerome Lynch, principal investigator on the project. The idea is to develop new technologies to create a two-way conduit of information between the bridge official and the bridge, which could be used immediately by state DOTs to improve the bridge inspection processes.
According to Lynch, if structural health monitoring systems were installed on all bridges, researchers could then make statistical comparisons among bridges. This would help them determine if, for example, all suspension bridges developed certain dangerous signs of wear after a certain age.