It seems like everything is becoming connected: your car, your phone, your refrigerator, your TV. Pretty soon your entire life will be online. Many industries are creating products and technologies to connect ‘the internet of things’ and make your everyday life as easy as possible. One of the major non-movers in this industry, however, is infrastructure. What will it take to make our dumb infrastructure smart infrastructure?
Dumb VS Smart Infrastructure
When researching this, one of the best comparisons I read was by Steve Duplessie of ComputerWorld. Smart infrastructure is like a luggage system at the airport. The bag gets scanned and off it goes to its destination. It doesn’t need someone guiding it every step of the way; the computer that operates the system knows where to send the bag. Dumb infrastructure, on the other hand, requires someone or something to manage each individual unit and make sure that they all function properly, like a highway. The lanes are there, but it takes drivers to get their cars from point A to point B.
So, in practice, smart infrastructure would take every aspect of the driving experience, cars, drivers, and roadways, and integrate them in order to avoid the problems that drivers face today. Passengers would input their destinations to their self-driving cars and off they would go. This real time traffic data would be sent back to a master system that would manage speed depending on the amount of cars on the roadway, and keep traffic flowing smoothly. Drivers would no longer need to worry about what lane they need to be in or which exit to take: each car would know where it’s going relative to the other vehicles on the roadway.
Although the thought of driverless vehicles is a little far off, infrastructure itself is already coming into the 21st century. In recent years, the US has been awash with reports of bridge collapses and failures. Bridges constructed sometimes as long as a century ago have been neglected so long that they are no longer safe for passengers. One of the most poignant examples of this is the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007. The fatal collapse killed 13 and injured 145. This brought our nation’s infrastructure woes into the spotlight.
The American Society of Civil Engineers deemed more than 65,000 of the nation’s bridges to be ‘structurally deficient,’ meaning that the bridge should be constantly monitored and inspected in order to determine whether or not the bridge needs to be repaired or replaced. 20,000 more are said to be ‘fracture critical,’ which means that due to a lack of redundancy in the bridge’s structural design, should a single critical component of the bridge break, the bridge could be in danger of collapse. What’s more, 8,000 bridges across the U.S. fall under both of these ‘structurally deficient’ and ‘fracture critical’ categories.
After the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, a new bridge was erected and opened in 2008. The new bridge was fitted with over 300 sensors attached to its most critical components in order to monitor the structural health and integrity of the structure. Many other new bridges have been fitted with this technology, such as the I-10 Twin Spans Bridge in New Orleans and the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C.
It may take a while for this technology to take hold, though. Many of the bridges that use this technology are only monitored for the short-term. The problem of cost has brought up the question who should be paying for the long-term monitoring of these structures.
Regardless, smart infrastructure will be here before you know it. Driverless cars like those being developed by Google, Toyota, and Ford are slated to be released by 2020, and promise to make driving easier for everyone. Paired together with self-monitoring bridges like those in Minnesota, Washington D.C., and New Orleans, we can hopefully create an infrastructure that is not only smart, but one that will last for many generations to come.
We may not be designing ‘smart’ infrastructure here at UNINTECH, but our smart engineers have worked with clients like the City of San Antonio and City of Austin to produce a wide variety of bridges and roadways that you might drive on every day. Click the button below to see how our transportation division is driving the future of Texas.