Spark

If this bridge could talk

"Slow down, I'm slippery!" A new smart bridge gathers data about itself.
The Memorial Bridge will be a smart, self-monitoring bridge that can anticipate problems before they happen. (memorialbridgeproject.com)

Erin Santini-Bell spends a lot of time thinking about bridges. She's the Department Chair and an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of New Hampshire.

Erin Santini-Bell
Erin has also been described as a "bridge doctor". For many years she's developed tools to monitor the "health" of bridges. And so she's living the dream on her latest project called The Living Bridge project.

The project is well underway at New Hampshire's new Memorial Bridge.  The vertical-lift bridge connects Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Kittery, Maine.

It involves outfitting the bridge with sensors to monitor everything from structural stability to weather conditions.

It will be a smart, self-monitoring bridge that can anticipate problems before they happen.

The sensors make it possible to give the bridge regular checkups.  

"It's just like how you take a physical even when you're a healthy person so you know when you get sick. That's why we call it the living bridge, because you're looking at it as an entire ecosystem of its own in its environment."

The Living Bridge is also a self sustaining project that will use renewable energy. Rather than plug all of the sensors into the grid, the Living Bridge Project will use tidal energy.

Turbines will convert tidal currents to electrical energy. Martin Wosnik is with the department of mechanical and ocean engineering at the University of New Hampshire.

"At the location we have quite favourable tidal currents that pass right under the bridge and on average we're producing more than enough power to power all the sensors," says Martin.

The project is expected to generate a huge amount of data coming from three suites of sensors. Structural sensors will measure forces like strain and vibration on the bridge, environmental sensors will measure weather data, and marine sensors will monitor the health of the Piscataqua River below the bridge.  

Erin says, "There's so much we can learn from it from a design perspective, from a maintenance perspective, another one is from an operational perspective."

The Living Bridge project is an example of smart infrastructure that has the potential to make bridges safer and help researchers gain valuable insights about the surrounding environment.

Erin says those insights will be shared as widely as possible with researchers and users of the bridge.

"We are able to kind of share all of this with the community and have them excited about what we're learning about this bridge and you can share that sense of inquiry and excitement with that would be citizen engineer."  

Listen to the full interview with Erin here:

A new smart bridge gathers data about itself, making it safer and adding valuable info about the environment around it. 8:23

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