Monitoring deteriorating bridges with wireless sensors and drones

August 18, 2014 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Developed countries have an enormous amount of infrastructure built over many decades. But there is a downside, all this infrastructure that has been put in place is facing ever rising inspection and maintenance costs. Ways need to be found to find faults before they happen, known as preventative maintenance, that are more automated and significantly cheaper.

Automated inspection allows new techniques to be used to increase potential fault coverage, reduces errors and enables real-time monitoring. A good example of this can be found in the transport network — bridges.

Today, bridges are inspected visually by teams of engineers who dangle beneath the bridge on cables or look up at the bridge from an elevated work platform. It is a slow, dangerous, expensive process and even the most experienced engineers can overlook cracks in the structure or other critical deficiencies.

Recently a report from the Obama administration warned that one in four bridges in the United States needs significant repair or cannot handle automobile traffic.

In order to tackle this problem, Tufts University engineers are employing wireless sensors and flying robots that could have the potential to help authorities monitor the condition of bridges in real time.

In the detection system being developed by Babak Moaveni, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts School of Engineering, smart sensors are attached permanently to bridge beams and joints. Each sensor can continuously record vibrations and process the recorded signal. Changes in the vibration response can signify damage, he says.