Underground infrastructure gets intelligence


The Internet of Things is one of the hottest topics in IT right now: smart watches, smart lighting, smart homes and smart cities are just a few of the potential applications.

In a smart city, we are told, everything will be monitored and connected, relaying useful information back to a central location: smart rubbish bills will signal when they need emptying; smart parking spots will signal when they are empty; smart lights will turn off when the street is empty, as well listening for sounds, such as a gunshot, that indicate all is not well.

But of course in addition to all the city infrastructure above ground that can be ‘smartened up’ there’s a whole lot of vital infrastructure underground: water and sewerage, gas pipes, power, and telecommunications cable. Moves are also afoot to make those smart.

Engineers at Cornell University in the US have been testing several advanced sensors to measure strain, temperature, movement and leakage that have been developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction at the University of Cambridge.

They installed these sensors on a length of hazard-resilient pipeline being tested to see how well it could withstand an earthquake, and it came through with flying colours.

Brad Wham, a geotechnical engineering post-doctoral student at Cornell said: “[The pipe] was able to accommodate 50 percent more ground deformation than the last design based on modifications Cornell suggested from our testing four years ago.”

This was the first use of these advanced sensors and the pipe’s performance, not the sensing technology itself, was the prime focus of the study.

However, the advanced sensors also piqued the interest of participating engineers looking for new ways to monitor the performance of underground infrastructure. And as cities begin to adopt the sensor technologies, more data will exist not just for infrastructure, but for the surrounding environment as well.

Tom O’Rourke, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and principal investigator of the research project, said: “This is about having feedback and intelligence for underground lifeline systems, such as water supplies, electric power, and telecommunications, which provide the services and resources that define a modern city. It’s pretty clear to me that within 20 years there will be intelligence integrated into every aspect of infrastructure.”

And by “intelligence” he does not simply mean monitoring and data gathering, as Kenichi Soga, a professor at Berkeley and principal investigator for the Berkeley and Cambridge teams, explained.“The vision we have is that our future infrastructure looks after itself by sensing and adapting to the changing environment. Rapidly developing sensor technologies and data analytics give us the opportunity to make this happen.”

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