Using wireless to make bridges safer

Wireless sensors and databases to report on health of bridges and other infrastructure.

Researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) have received US$1 million from the Federal Highway Administration to build a network of Internet-based wireless sensors and databases that would alert authorities in real time about the health of bridges and other infrastructure.

The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis earlier this year sent universities into overdrive promoting the wireless and nanotechnology research going on in their labs that could one day make bridges and other structures safer.

As for the work at SIUC's Materials Technology Center, director Shing-Chung Yen says the three-year project involves an integrated sensor network with wireless technology and analysis tools. The school is committing US$1 million of its own resources to support the effort.

The project is initially focused on bridges, at first a footbridge on campus and later a vehicle bridge in the state. Stresses, elongation, deformation and rotations will be among the variables monitored by the cross-checking sensor network, which will be connected to the Web. A big challenge will be coming up with software to plow through what is sure to be a lot of data, Yen says.

"You have to be knowledgeable enough to know what your data means," Yen says in a statement. "You have to be able to tell what is reliable data and what is not. So you have to have a lot of databases....If an emergency comes up, we're looking for quick assessments. We don't have time to do computations. If you can do that, there is still a chance to minimize the potential catastrophe."

Such a sensor network could also be used for security purposes, even for sniffing out dangerous chemicals, for example.

Long term, Yen says he is hopeful that what's learned during this project can be applied to making safer bridges, which are currently oftentimes overbuilt. And that, he says, isn't always the safest approach.

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