Wired to Wireless Structural Engineering

bridge(1)Structural engineers are now working on new method to integrate wireless sensor networks as a means of ensuring that we live and work with latest safety regulations, and ready to face any natural disasters or terror attacks. For instance, the structural engineers in the past and present are looking into the design and maintenance of bridges.

Nevertheless, monitoring a bridge’s structure can be costly, especially when using wires that are attached to sensors throughout the bridge’s entire build. Therefore, a newer and cheaper wireless system might be the way of the future. According to Matthew Roblez, a certified and licensed structural engineer and part owner and principal of McNeil Engineering, “the reason is that ‘wired control systems have one major flaw that makes the cost of using them almost not worth it: during natural disasters and accidents, the wires for the systems tend to break when they are needed the most, rendering them useless. The worry of the system failing is greatly negated when wireless systems are brought into play. The wireless systems can be more resilient to damage during earthquakes or hurricanes and still provide data to the people monitoring the structure”

Professors from Washington University in St. Louis, Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have teamed up to develop a new system they call Wireless Cyber-Physical Simulator. The simulator combines realistic simulations of structures and wireless networks, and they believe it is a promising attempt at getting real-time measurements from wireless sensors during natural disasters.

The professor heading the research, Chenyang Lu, says ‘sophisticated mathematical models have been used to simulate many different scenarios to test the capacity of the wireless networks. The first case study done was Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau, which spans the Mississippi River. About 14,000 cars pass over the 1,150-foot bridge each day. The bridge is a great place for the case study since it lies in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which is the most active seismic area east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States’.

Currently, the bridge does not have wireless sensors, so the professors used wireless traces of a similar bridge in Japan. Other simulations included various building types. The hope is that once all the research is done, there can be thousands of dollars saved when it comes to the costs of maintaining these structures. Matthew Roblez said they should also go a long way in helping to save lives. Since the wireless communications will continue to transmit through natural disasters, engineers will have a better idea of why these structures fail and can work with that information to build safer buildings, bridges and roads for everyone in the United States. This will save millions of dollars when it comes to repairing damaged buildings but also tons of man hours and taxpayer dollars that go into the research of what happened after a natural disaster. As long as the wireless systems work, a lot of that information will be available almost immediately.

“It is one of a series of fairly frequent alarms nationwide–some louder than others,” said Robert Barnes, a civil engineering professor at Auburn University in Alabama. “Until we fix our national funding structure for highway maintenance (gasoline taxes), we will just keep pressing the snooze button and rolling over.” After a bridge collapsed when an oversized truck crashed into one of the support beams on Skagit River Bridge in Chicago

“We can always use more funding but most of our bridge work is funded through federal government or through the state,” said Pete Scales, director of public affairs at Chicago Department of Transportation.  When it comes to civil infrastructure, Dave Devinger, a corporate attorney in Chicago, said that he didn’t mind that some of his taxes go to maintaining bridges because “it’s a matter of public safety.”   Chenyang Lu, a professor of computer science at Washington University in St. Louis, and his team are currently developing “wireless structural control systems.”  “These are real-time control systems that monitor structural response using wireless sensors and control the structures using actuators,” he said. Since rebuilding every deteriorated bridge is not cost effective, “We need to retrofit these existing bridges with monitoring and control systems to make them more resilient,” he said. “Wireless structural monitoring and control systems provide promising technology for our aging bridges and civil infrastructure in general.”  For instance, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation website, the bridge near North Ashland Avenue and I-90 in Chicago was inspected last month and declared structurally deficient, functionally obsolete, and there is a high priority to correct the bridges’ under clearance. But with the embrace of wireless sensor networks by structural engineers, the future looks bright

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