2012
06.29

Last night driving over a newly constructed bridge in my town, I silently wondered if the bridge had sensors in it, knowing ongoing monitoring of infrastructure can save a significant amount of money in the long run.

Now, granted, I understand for a small town the initial upfront investment of technology in infrastructure can be daunting, but I still can’t help wondering the long-term value add of technology in any type of infrastructure—bridges, roads, wastewater, etc.

I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with the executive director of the PSII (Pennsylvania Smart Infrastructure Incubator) at Carnegie Mellon University, Matthew Sanfilippo, and he reiterated an interesting point: Today’s approach to maintaining bridges and roads is a break-fix mentality, meaning something critical needs to break before the structures are replaced.

Oftentimes, this means a structure can be in disrepair for quite some time while the town works toward fixing the issue. In my case, the bridge in my town had been closed to traffic since the end of 2009 after an inspection determined it was not structurally safe.

But this approach to managing infrastructure can be broken—and should be if we want safe and reliable railways, bridge, roads, and wastewater systems running across our country. Technology is advancing to the point where structures can be monitored on a continuous basis, allowing for ongoing repairs as needed.

With sensors in the ground and remote-monitoring technology, there are a variety of maintenance and safety-related activities that can be improved. But it is ultimately the ROI (return-on-investment) that will be the draw for use of this in cities. The efficiencies gained by the technologies can reduce costs in the long run.

As a comparison, ongoing maintenance (oil changes, etc.) to cars ensure a longer vehicle lifespan. Imagine if cities across the globe took the same approach to infrastructure. Ongoing, small repairs can extend the life of infrastructure, preventing severe deterioration.

Tech companies are coming to market with solutions that are more affordable all the time. This week’s big news in this area was a partnership between ThingWorx and Smart Structures, which will improve the quality of bridge pilings, foundations, and other concrete structures, while ultimately reducing costs and improving safety. These announcements are very exciting for the M2M (machine-to-machine) and infrastructure construction communities.

Going forward, I will probably always wonder when I am cruising over a newly constructed bridge or road if it has sensors in it. I understand the challenges cities face with regards to implementing the technology, but I also recognize the long-term value such systems can provide. I truly hope the efforts and advances being made toward smarter infrastructure come to fruition in cities, and we ultimately have a connected country to better manage transportation systems.

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