Public release date: 29-Jul-2011
Contact: Neil Tickner
University of Maryland
Averting bridge disasters: New technology could save hundreds of lives
UMD sensors offer instant, affordable warnings
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Millions of U.S. drivers cross faulty or obsolete bridges every day, highway statistics show, but it's too costly to fix all these spans or adequately monitor their safety, says a University of Maryland researcher who's developed a new, affordable early warning system.
This wireless technology could avert the kind of bridge collapse that killed 13 and injured 145 along Minneapolis' I-35W on Aug. 1, 2007, he says - and do so at one-one-hundredth the cost of current wired systems.
"Potentially hundreds of lives could be saved," says University of Maryland electrical engineering researcher Mehdi Kalantari. "One of every four U.S. highway bridges has known structural problems or exceeded its intended life-span. Most only get inspected once every one or two years. That's a bad mix."
Kalantari has created tiny wireless sensors that monitor and transmit minute-by-minute data on a bridge's structural integrity. A central computer analyzes the data and instantly warns officials of possible trouble. He plans to scale-up manufacture in the fall.
"If this kind of technology had been available in Minnesota four years ago, there's a good chance the fatal bridge collapse could have been avoided," Kalantari adds. "This new approach makes preventive maintenance affordable - even at a time when budgets are tight. Officials will be able to catch problems early and will have weeks or month to fix a problem."
More than one-in-four U.S. bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, according to a 2009 estimate by the U.S. Society of Civil Engineers.
72,000-plus U.S. bridges are listed by the U.S. Department of Transportation as "structurally deficient" and require extra surveillance.
79,000 others are functionally obsolete, exceeding their life-span and carrying loads greater than they were designed to handle.