Can Big Data Make Our Bridges Safer?

Even though bridges are inanimate hulks made of steel and/or concrete, they tend to behave like organic beings, responding imperceptibly to the impact of traffic, weather or even poor design. Each time a car or truck thunders over it, a bridge strains, vibrates, deforms, tilts, displaces, cracks and in the process is irrevocably changed. Being able to measure and track these tiny changes is critical if we are to be able to predict which bridge needs modest repair work, which one is in imminent danger of collapse and which one will still has decades left to go. And that is where Big Data comes in.Until recently, the only way to assess the state of a bridge was to manually inspect it, which is not only expensive (and fleeting in an era of budget sequester) but also of limited effectiveness since the human eye is not very good at identifying microscopic changes. Like everything else, however, technology, more specifically Big Data technology, is changing this as well.

Strategically placed sensors can now measure the various factors that impact the structural integrity of a bridge, including things like traffic load, weather, seismic events and even the physical properties of core components like steel & concrete. As part of a sophisticated bridge monitoring system, these sensors make it easier to both record the readings and to communicate the data to a central monitoring station, where analysis can be performed in real time to determine exactly what is going on with the span. In areas that have frequent seismic activity (e.g. Northern California) or massive traffic volumes (e.g. the Brooklyn Bridge), these sensors can be a critical tool in managing such a vital infrastructure.

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