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No.20 If These Walls Could Talk

September 16, 2009
by Eleanor Black Watkin
a bridge

The big idea: What if buildings and bridges could monitor their own structural “health?” That’s smart infrastructure, a broad term referring to power networks, water systems, telecommunications operations, and public transportation systems that make use of “intelligent” materials (sensor-laden concrete) or devices (tiny cameras) to be responsive to conditions and, ultimately, safer.

The players: Bozidar Stojadinovic, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, is working on a computer system that can collect sensor readings from a building after an earthquake, analyze them, and provide an overview of the building’s structural state. Ultimately this would allow engineering teams to start repairing damaged structures minutes after the last seismic wave.

The same can be done with bridges: to outfit bridges with sensors, it costs about $100,000 per every $1 million spent on overall construction, and the cost is coming down every year.

Assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Raja Sengupta is working on smart cars that can communicate with each other to avoid collisions at intersections or accidents due to blind spots and lane changing. The “test bed” is 60 miles of roadway in the Bay Area, on El Camino Real and Highway 101. Ultimately, cars will transmit data to roadside sensors, alerting other drivers to road hazards, traffic jams, and accidents.

Sengupta is also working on unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs) that operate autonomously. The military already uses UAVs capable of carrying weapons weighing up to 300 pounds. “Our emphasis is on making UAVs cheap enough for civilian life,” says Sengupta, who sees applications for surveillance by parks departments, for mail delivery, and for firefighting. “The technology has to become incredibly reliable.”

What’s next: Other “smart” initiatives include self-cleaning glass for office tower windows, walls that let light through—even elevators capable of managing passengers, alerting them about which car to use based on where they want to go, to avoid fruitless and time-consuming stops. And in a more altruistic vein, we will be able to monitor World Heritage sites such as Machu Picchu and the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, for stress and damage, avoiding the loss of treasures through too much admiration.

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