On April 15, 2014, Charles Allen, Jr., a Wilmington, DE, business owner, was driving home on the I-495 bypass, as he had done for 25 years. While traveling on the twin three-lane bridges that span the Christiana River, he noticed that the normally parallel bridges were offset by nearly 18 inches in height and the apparent listing of one of the lanes had created a large gap between the bridges through which the ground was visible, some four stories below. Unable to reach the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) after business hours he called the 911 dispatcher to alert officials to the problem. The bridges continued to carry over 90,000 vehicles per day until R. David Charles, a geotechnical engineer with Duffield Associates, sent photos of the tilted bridge supports to DelDOT on May 29, 2014. Bridge inspectors followed up on this report four days later on June 2, 2014, and immediately closed the bridges to traffic.
On June 6, 2014, U.S. Senator Chris Coons, D-Delaware, visited the closed bridge and commended DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt for the “prompt and effective and respon- sible action” his office took to address the problem, some 48 days after Allen’s initial 911 emergency call.
After affixing electronic tilt sensors to the bridge supports, engineers were able to determine that a 55,000-ton stockpile of topsoil placed near the bridge had cracked eight footings and caused four pairs of supports to list as much as four degrees from vertical. Had low-power, wireless tilt sensors been attached a season earlier, the damage to the bridge could have been detected in real time and repairs initiated before conditions deteriorated.
Earlier in March of 2014, Malaysia Air- lines Flight 370 was lost, and our thoughts go out to all those involved. The Boeing 777 was outfitted with twin Rolls Royce Trent 800 engines that were equipped with sensors that periodically report real-time operating conditions through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Re- porting System (ACARS) via satellite to the manufacturer’s Global Engine Health Monitoring Center in Derby, UK. Designed to alert ground-based mechanics of engine maintenance requests upon landing, the ACARS data was used to determine the flight path of the missing airplane for several hours after communication with the flight crew was lost.
As connected monitoring devices continue to seep into consumer products that are less costly than jet engines and interstate bridges, the term “Internet of Things” begins to apply. Coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton while serving as the Executive Director of the Auto-ID Center, an RFID technology development effort of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the IoT can be deployed inexpensively and with immense return on investment (ROI). Unlike the industrial Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems that involve humans in the information and analysis loop, the IoT merges existing low-cost sensors, protocols and network technologies with automated analysis and cloud-based machine learning. While the sensor data is useful for monitoring long- term trends, real-time value is realized by anticipating maintenance and avoiding equipment failure, as evidenced by the use of ACARS since 1978.
One new device in the IoT space was funded by a 2013 Kickstarter campaign that raised 280 percent of the funding requested to develop a “home intelli- gence” sensor known as “Neurio.” This harmonica-sized device from Vancouver based Neurio Technology, plugs into an electric breaker panel and monitors the voltage, current and frequencies of the entire electric circuit connecting every electrical device in the home. When an appliance is switched on, it adds its unique power “footprint” to the circuit. Neurio sends these measurements into the “Neurio cloud” via WiFi where they are analyzed to detect the operation of specific appliances, such as heaters, air conditioners and room lights, which themselves do not contain connected sensors. Users can choose to act on Neurio-detected events through apps on their smartphones or Web devices.
In addition to serving as an energy usage monitoring and optimization system, Neu- rio’s public application program interface (API) is allowing developers to use the data to trigger home automation events. Conceivably, this system or one with in- creased sensitivity could be used to monitor the health and performance of electronic appliances in the home. In addition to alerting users of a forgotten hot clothing iron, Neurio could report on the decreasing efficiency of its heating element and predict the amount of time remaining before a trip to the local big box store is required.
Elected officials of all stripes correctly pontificate on the need to address the declining condition of our nation’s infra- structure. Perhaps, instead of awarding contracts to projects based on their shovel- readiness, the increased deployment of sensors connected by the Internet of Things will not only advise the prioritization of projects but help to avoid the tragic and costly effects of catastrophic failures.
- I-495 April 2014 Bridge Closure: www.delawareonline.com/story/news/ traffic/2014/06/06/april-call-crazy-emergency- bridge/10095489/
- Kevin Ashton: www.howtoflyahorse.com/about-the-author/
- Neurio Technologies, Inc.: www.neurio.io/
- Neurio Installation Video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ky8vmwRFGuk
William Weaver is an associate professor in the Department of Integrated Science, Business, and Technology at La Salle University. He may be contacted at editor@ScientificComputing.com.