Civil engineers are increasingly relying on data gathered from a massive information network to keep United States infrastructures functioning and safe. As an example, although bridges are inanimate objects, the factors that determine the lifespan and worthiness of the structures are extremely complex, although typically imperceptible to the naked eye. For example, each passing vehicle generates vibrations that contribute to cracks and deformities that deteriorates structures. Measuring and monitoring these forces are vital to the maintenance and safety of man-made features erected across the nation. By using big data technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) for monitoring, civil engineers can determine which structures need minor servicing, major repairs or replacement.

The Internet of Things consists of all digital devices that send information via the web. To monitor critical structures, civil engineers use strategically placed sensors, which record metrics such as climatic conditions, structure composite integrity, seismic activity and vehicular traffic. The engineers can then continuously and efficiently monitor the integrity of many major infrastructures remotely and in real-time. This capability is especially critical in regions that experience exceptionally large traffic volume or frequent seismic activity.


Where Transportation and Data Networks Combine

Engineers use more than sensors to monitor the integrity of critical structures. The Internet of Things now provides a level of detailed, timely information that was previously unimaginable, and big data technology allows engineers to evaluate information gathered from disparate sources, such as on-board vehicle sensors, smartphone global positioning satellite (GPS) data as well as highly sophisticated sensors that record spatial, temporal and spectral variables. Cameras are another IoT connected resource that engineers use to manage the nation’s infrastructure. Civil engineers also take advantage of information entered by human operators, which can provide real-time benefits, such as helping travelers avoid congested transportation routes.


Crossing the Chasms

Bridges are vital structures that allow individuals to cross the many water features that dot the landscape. The United States population relies on a network of nearly half a million bridges. Damage or structural failure of a bridge can result in a severe negative impact to local economies and municipal operations such as emergency services.

Since 1966, the U.S. transportation network has experienced 1,500 bridge failures caused by the shifting and degradation of the underlying foundation, an event called scouring. The U.S. National Bridge Inventory lists over 20,000 bridges that are scour critical, with Pennsylvania, Indiana, South Carolina, Oregon and Tennessee hosting the most threatened structures.

Governments around the world work to overcome similar challenges in keeping the roadways safe. As an example, University of Lübeck engineers at the Institute of Telematics in Germany have developed the Smart Bridge project. The initiative combines data gathered through the Intelligent Sensor Network information that’s collected by municipal transportation sensors. The data gathered by the systems generates a digital model that displays structural information in real-time for evaluation by the city’s civil engineers. The engineers use the model to guide teams in the maintenance and repair of the structures. In time, the German officials hope to expand the network across the entire country.


Keeping the Drink at Bay

In the Netherlands, dike monitoring is another critical infrastructure maintenance process that benefits from connection to the Internet of Things. To facilitate this, many agencies collaborated in a project to combine their sensor information and create an enormous dike monitoring network. Using the system, civil engineers observe the status of the country’s dikes in real-time.

As engineers connect additional sensors to the IoT, they find more innovative and beneficial ways to use the technology to benefit public safety. The discoveries lead to the improvement of public health, new innovative transportation systems, energy conservation efforts and population quality of life. However, information alone does not provide sorely needed answers. It’s the knowledge and skill of well trained civil engineers that breathes life into new innovations, policies and works that serve the public good.


Pulling It All Together

The complex information gathered by the Internet of Things allows policymakers to create evidence-based legislation. However, finding a balance of the right information is a hurdle. Essentially any powered device can produce useful data. Analysts forecast that the IoT will gather data from over 20 billion sources around the world by the year 2020. Big data technology allows researchers to sift through this massive amount of information to find meaningful solutions. As this process moves forward, evidenced-based policies will grow increasingly critical as a framework for monitoring initiative deployment and outcomes.

Until relatively recently, civil engineers monitored and serviced the nation’s infrastructure manually, which proved highly inefficient and unreliable. Big data technology that’s fed by the Internet of Things greatly expands the scope and efficiency of civil engineering work. By harnessing the invaluable information gathered by the IoT and analyzed using big data technology, engineers are making massive strides in maintaining the safety and integrity of America’s infrastructures.

Sensors across the nation transfer data to centralized locations, making it easier for engineers to keep a watchful eye over the structures that citizens rely on to conduct daily activities. The ability of highly trained civil engineers to harness and make meaningful use of enormous amounts of information using big data technology and the Internet of Things will be an increasingly invaluable asset for protecting the population from structural failures and natural disasters.