An international team of engineers is collaborating on the development of an innovative new sensor system which will provide real-time alerts for potentially catastrophic structural failures or weaknesses while also guiding periodic preventive maintenance.

Using a grant of just over $1 million from the government of Qatar, a team of engineers from the US, Canada and the Middle East is developing a wireless sensor network that will monitor vibrations, sagging and stresses to assess a structure’s ability to carry its load. The proposed system would not only detect damage after it occurs, but would also aim to predict it before it takes place.

“Our part of this project is to determine not only where to place the sensors, but to decide what type of data the system will collect, how to interpret it, and then how to make a decision about where, when, and to what extent to intervene,” said Mohamed Mahgoub, director of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) Concrete Industry Management program and one of the project’s principal investigators.

“While the network can be installed on existing bridges, the aim is to embed it in a structure’s steel bars before the concrete is even poured.”

The new network would optimize efficiency and cut costs by dramatically reducing the number of sensors needed to gather data, as well as the amount of data collected. Sensors would be triggered only when there is movement on the bridge and not continuously as is now standard practice, saving time and the labour needed to sift through reams of data collected in the middle of the night, for example, when it conveys little meaningful information.

“It takes so much time to analyse and much of it is irrelevant,” Mahgoub said. “We would also save money, labour and traffic interruptions by optimizing when to intervene and make repairs – deciding whether a smaller fix is needed in the short-term or whether it is better to wait for a larger fix.”

Other members of the collaboration include an electrical engineering team at Memorial University in Canada, which will investigate electrical aspects of the wireless sensor network, and another electrical engineering team at Qatar University that will install the wireless network and collect the data.

Qatar is keen to lead initiatives which improve structural safety as they gear up to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The country’s development plans will see the construction of a massive complex of bridges, stadiums, tramways, tunnels and other essential infrastructure. In addition, for more than 10 years, a proposal to connect the country with Bahrain by a 25-mile causeway has been discussed and now has the potential to be a more viable possibility.

The three-year project begins in May with a kick-off meeting at Qatar University to discuss the first steps. The team will build a small bridge model to test in NJIT’s structural lab and will install sensors on several existing bridges in Qatar to monitor their behaviour until the end of the year.