Bridge Technology Research Partnership Established

September 28, 2010

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is partnering with The University of Michigan on a $19-million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to research advanced bridge sensor monitoring technologies. The goal of the research is to use four different types of surface and penetrating sensors to detect cracks, corrosion and other signs of weakness on bridge infrastructure and communicate the information from the sensors to bridge inspectors.

"This project will accelerate the field of structural health monitoring and ultimately improve the safety of the nation's aging bridges and other infrastructures," said Jerome Lynch, principal investigator on the project and University of Michigan assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. "We want to develop new technologies to create a two-way conduit of information between the bridge official and the bridge. We are excited to collaborate on these transformative technologies with partners like MDOT, who could use them immediately to improve bridge inspection processes."

Bridge inspectors today rely mainly on visual inspections to determine if a structure is sound.

"Our work will add to what is currently being done, not replace it," said Tim Gordon, head of The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's (UMTRI) Engineering Research Division. "The infrastructure problem and the feasibility of new monitoring strategies are emerging at the same time. We believe we have ways of testing the performance of bridges as integrated structures, not just inspecting their components."

"The technologies from this project could prove very beneficial to the citizens of Michigan," said State Transportation Director Kirk T. Steudle. "Recognizing that our nation's infrastructure is the backbone of our economy, this type of innovative research is critical to the future of Michigan and the United States. MDOT is pleased to partner with The University of Michigan on this important engineering project."

Funded in large part by nearly $9 million from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Technology Innovation Program (TIP), the project involves 14 researchers from The University of Michigan College of Engineering and UMTRI. In addition, engineers at five private firms in New York, California and Michigan are key team members. The remaining funding comes from cost-sharing among MDOT and the entities involved. MDOT is providing researchers with access to state bridges that will serve as test-beds.

One and a half years after the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, MN, the five-year project aims to create the ultimate infrastructure monitoring system and install prototype advanced sensor technology on several test bridges in Michigan. The monitoring system also would measure the effects of heavy trucks on bridges, which is currently not possible. Through enhanced antennas and the Internet, the system would wirelessly relay the information it gathers to an inspector on site or working in an office miles away.

"The pursuit of these innovative technologies will provide us with important knowledge that can be used to enhance and improve our transportation systems," Steudle said. "Bringing this technology to Michigan will help showcase our state as a leader in innovative transportation engineering systems and stimulate economic development."

MDOT says that the precise locations of the test bridges have yet to be determined. The project will begin in February with a goal of providing the first demonstration on an MDOT bridge this year.

The University of Michigan has taken steps to protect the intellectual property relating to the project, and plans to find commercial partners to eventually bring the technology to market.