​How IoT Can Help Monitor and Rebuild Aging Infrastructure

Aging infrastructure is both costly and potentially deadly. IoT tech may be the best way to save our cities.
May 23, 2016, 6:47pm
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

On August 1, 2007, the collapse of the I-35W Mississippi Bridge in Minneapolis resulted in 13 casualties and cost the state millions of dollars in damage repairs. Nine years later, the U.S.'s aging infrastructure is producing increasing amounts of similar threats in roads, railroads, bridges and highways. The challenges of maintaining and monitoring the safety of our public infrastructure are many, but thanks to advances in Internet of Things tech, we are now better equipped to detect and prevent incidents similar to the I-35W tragedy, and ensure safety while also improving the maintenance cycle.

Grand Coulle Dam. WikiCommons.

A study by the Federal National Bridge Inventory shows that roughly 65,000 of the country's 600,000 bridges are in need of serious repair, and around 20,000 are "fracture critical"–at risk of collapse. Under such circumstances, it is imperative that government agencies choose repair and maintenance priorities wisely, especially when faced with limited funding.

The road and highway system can benefit immensely from IoT, as it has created unprecedented possibilities in sensing, storing, and analyzing data. Advanced IoT sensors can determine the structural status of a bridge under dynamic conditions and report back to cloud servers in real-time. These sensors can include accelerometers to calculate vibration in stay cables, strain gauges, anemometers for wind speed and direction, and temperature and light level sensors. Engineers and data scientists can then analyze the gleaned data to compile forecasts, predict collapses, and raise the alarm before the worst comes to pass.

The benefits of IoT will soon reach well beyond the monitoring and reporting of structure health status. Advances in machine learning and analytics technology can help assess and determine the status of thousands of bridges across the country, 'round-the-clock, without direct attendance of human scientists. Warnings can then be dispatched to other smart things, including roadblocks, traffic signs, informational billboards, and connected cars (slated to become autonomous vehicles in the near future). These smart nodes will, in turn, help warn people about impending incidents and divert traffic toward other, safer routes.

Some of the above might sound like sci-fi, but we aren't very far from achieving it. Already, IoT instrumentation has been tested on several bridges including the Monroe Michigan Telegraph Road Bridge and the New Carquinez California Bridge. These systems are helping examine the integrity and response of the bridges under high wind loading and earthquake conditions.

IoT is showing its potential in improving safety and security in other areas of the road and construction industry as well. Britain is in the process of installing sensors in and beside railway tracks to inform a centralized command center if they need maintenance or are threatened by nearby landslides or flooding.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of the Internet of Things is its efficiency and cost effectiveness of these systems. The investment made in IoT sensors and gateways is returned many-fold as the gathered data can help make cost-saving decisions and more efficient usage of resources and operations. Traffic lights are being optimized to reduce congestion, smog, and fuel consumption by vehicles. Power plants are using IoT to make more efficient use of produced energy. Cattle farmers are using IoT to make the cattle healthier and more productive without using more feed.

In the case of bridge maintenance costs, the replacement of the I-35W Mississippi Bridge came with a $234 million price tag. Today, at the same price, thousands of bridges can be instrumented with IoT sensors, which effectively lead to timely maintenance and the prevention of other costly disasters.

Using Intel® IoT Technology and resources from the Intel® IoT Developer Program, solutions can be created to monitor bridge health and help expand their utility and capabilities as the potential of IoT grows beyond its current borders. The array of hardware and software offered can be flexibly arranged to create IoT ecosystems for a wide range of scenarios and settings.

These IoT devices "sense" and gather different data from their deployment environment. The data is then directed to an Intel® IoT Gateway, which can be scaled to fit processing, memory and energy consumption needs. These gateways can be programmed with Intel's development tools to provide time-critical edge services and functionality. Cloud services are used to store and analyze the data generated by the IoT ecosystem, and easy-to-use APIs and interfaces to access the data from a wide variety of devices.

Intel's IoT platform is already being used in the road and construction industry by many providers and manufacturers, and is providing safety and security for people working in dangerous environments. The diversification of these applications is certainly on the horizon as IoT tech is increasingly becoming key to efficiency, utility, comfort, and safety. Had the Internet of Things existed in 2007 with the ubiquity it now has, the victims of the I-35W disaster could have been warned that they were driving toward a collapsing bridge. Then again, IoT could've prevented the collapse altogether. While the past can't be changed, IoT is helping us ensure a brighter, safer, more efficient future.

Learn more about how you can get started with Intel® IoT

If you are a developer and want to be involved in helping make bridges and infrastructure "smart" using Intel® IoT, here's your opportunity to begin changing the world:

If you are looking for IoT solutions in this space, here are some additional resources:
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