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Researchers to Develop Real-Time Road Sensors

System to Assess Drive-By Conditions

Tzu-Yang Yu

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On Aug. 1, 2007, the central span of an eight-lane steel truss arch bridge in Minneapolis carrying Interstate 35W across the Mississippi River gave way without warning during the evening rush-hour traffic, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

It was one of the worst bridge disasters in the U.S. in recent memory. Investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed that a design flaw, together with the additional weight of construction materials and vehicles on the span at the time of the collapse, contributed to the bridge’s catastrophic failure.

This tragedy highlights the urgent need for federal and state governments to conduct regular structural reviews and inspections of the nation’s roadways and bridges so necessary maintenance, repair or complete overhaul can be done as needed, and avert the loss of life, property and business.

Asst. Prof. Tzu-Yang Yu of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and graduate student Burak Boyaci, together with co-investigators from Northeastern University, the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College, and Witten Technologies Inc., have come up with a novel plan to conduct mobile surface and subsurface inspections of roadways and decks using an automated “drive-by” monitoring system installed on ordinary vehicles.

Called VOTERS (Versatile Onboard Traffic Embedded Roaming Sensors), the project aims to eliminate the need to set up dangerous, congestion-prone highway inspection zones. Northeastern is heading the project, which recently received a five-year, $18.8 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“Deteriorating civil infrastructure is a critical national problem in the U.S,” says Yu. “According to a recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, an estimated $2.2 trillion will be needed to bring the country’s civil infrastructure to an acceptable physical condition. Without innovative solutions, this severe problem will seriously impact public safety and the U.S. economy.” 

The team will gather accurate, up-to-date information on the condition of roadways and bridges using compact instrument packages installed in a fleet of private and public cars and trucks. Each package consists of an array of sophisticated sensors, such as an acoustic system that monitors the sound made by the vehicle’s tires on the road to determine possible cracks or poor bonding between the concrete roadbed and asphalt overlay; a high-frequency ground-penetrating radar array designed to detect delamination, trapped moisture, rebar corrosion and other defects that would otherwise be invisible from the roads’ surface; and an advanced millimeter-wave radar to detect potholes, embedded moisture and thin ice layers.

An onboard computer will control the instruments, check the vehicle’s exact location using GPS, and report the data back to base stations in real time via a cellular phone ߞ; all without involving the vehicle’s driver, who just needs to follow his or her regular driving routine. VOTERS will provide a constant stream of information gathered under actual driving conditions and at normal speeds that will not back up traffic. The data will allow planners to schedule repairs where and when they are needed.

“In addition to the technological advances VOTERS will deliver, this project will create new business opportunities in the fields of wireless communication, data processing, online services and civil engineering,” says Yu, who joined the UMass Lowell faculty last September, after completing his doctorate at MIT. “Success of VOTERS will also provide a sustainable civil infrastructure to guarantee the long-term prosperity of the U.S. economy.”

- Edwin_Aguirre