Smartphones can help monitor and maintain bridges

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The accelerometer in your phone can help detect changes in structural integrity.

Why it matters: Aging infrastructure, such as bridges, is a serious problem in many countries, whose collapses have led to dozens of injuries and deaths in recent years. Researchers have started monitoring the integrity of the bridge using drivers’ smartphones, which is cheaper than traditional methods, but creates privacy issues.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the US Military Academy recently published a study on the use of crowdsourcing data from smartphone accelerometers to track the structural integrity of bridges. This method can significantly increase the life of the bridge by informing the owners when something is wrong before the bridge is damaged or collapses.

Massive man—made structures such as bridges and skyscrapers have a unique modular frequency – as a signature of how its vibrations affect things on and around it. Some builders install sensors on bridges to track changes in modular frequency and detect changes. However, a large bridge may require many expensive sensors that require maintenance themselves, and responsible parties may need to manually and periodically download sensor data.

Smartphone accelerometers in many vehicles that pass over the bridge daily can detect these modular frequencies and send a significant amount of data to the bridge owner. This method will be cheaper and easier than installing sensors and downloading their data. The variety of vehicles and mobile devices can affect the accuracy of their data, but the constant modal frequency of the structure can help stabilize the results.

However, ordinary users may not want the location data of their devices and accelerometer to be transmitted to researchers or infrastructure management bodies. Theoretically, they could introduce a denial system or even compensate the public for assistance in maintaining the bridges they use.

More realistically, mobile accelerometer data may come exclusively from government vehicles such as police cars or mail trucks. Transport and logistics companies may also agree to provide this data from trucks and delivery vehicles. Researchers collected information from Uber drivers on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Although drivers’ accelerometers can detect modular frequency changes in bridges, determining the causes of these changes is another matter. The researchers say they can isolate temperature changes, which is likely to reduce the number of false positives.

According to the study, the inclusion of crowdsourcing data in the maintenance plan of a new bridge can increase its service life by more than 14 years at no additional cost.

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