Smart Bridges for a Smarter Planet

Bridges are critical elements of our transportation infrastructure.  Bridge failure, as we saw with the collapse of the I-35 bridge outside of Minneapolis, can be catastrophic.  Today, the developed nations of the world are having to deal with many bridges that are aging.  How can we monitor those bridges to better predict when they might fail?  In the United States there are a reported 600,000 bridges.

Looking for structural problems in bridges mostly still requires a visual inspection, The traditional practice of bridge inspection and bridge management has many limitations.  The most significant limitation is that the data collected is based solely upon visual inspection, augmented with limited mechanical methods such as hammer sounding or prying.   Visual inspection is highly variable, subjective and inherently unable to detect invisible deterioration, damage or distress.

In the future, we will have continuous electronic monitoring of bridges using a network of sensors at critical points.  Sensors can deliver volumes of data about how a bridge handles heavy traffic, harsh winters, high winds or other conditions.  Sensors can also alert us to serious problems long before they might be apparent to a human inspector during a visual inspection.

Picture Graphic from Businessweek.  See original image here

The bridge that crashed in Minneapolis in 2007 was replaced by a new smarter bridge, design and built in about a year.   It is a very modern bridge and is probably the smartest bridge in the USA and perhaps the world.   It is filled with sensors that are meant to monitor all the details necessary to prevent any collapse.   The new bridge holds more than 300 sensors that measure the effects of corrosion and temperature changes.   The sensor system will track weather, stresses and it will monitor traffic.  There’s also an automatic de-icing system which should really come in handy.  In addition to helping transportation officials monitor the health of the bridge, researchers at the University of Minnesota are analyzing the data to help design bridges better able to handle all the stresses.

For more information on Smart Bridges, see the following articles