Difficult Access Team engineers with Wiss, Janney and Elstner Associates examine stones of the Washington Monument for cracks. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the East Coast in August not only caught residents of the region by surprise, it raised concerns regarding the area’s disaster preparedness. It also marked the beginning of numerous inspections of the area’s older structures, including the Washington Monument.

But new inventions may change the way we prepare our infrastructure for — and monitor it after — natural disasters.

In July, MIT News’s Denise Brehm wrote that civil engineers from MIT and the University of Potsdam, in Germany, had developed a “sensing skin” that could be applied to critical areas of a structure, such as a bridge or building, to monitor changes in its structural integrity. The patches would monitor the capacitance of particular regions and feed data to a computer, registering any changes. However, the technology is still being developed.

Similar research is being done at Stevens Institute of Technology, where Yong Shi is leading a research team that is exploring piezoelectric nanoactive fiber composites. The sensors would be embedded in structures and measure acoustic emission signals.

Raimondo Betti, a professor at Columbia University, has called his latest invention, which monitors the corrosion of main cables in suspension bridges, “the beginning of a new era in infrastructure testing.”

The Columbia engineering school’s Carleton Laboratory is home to a dummy suspension cable in an environmental chamber, where the cable is exposed to elements that mimic natural deterioration at an accelerated rate. The sensors Betti is developing would monitor changes in the suspension-bridge cables over time to determine the sensors’ effectiveness and the nature of suspension-bridge-cable breakdown.

What if we could see exactly how a structure’s integrity has changed over time? According to an Oct. 9 report in Scientific American, Cornell University’s Hod Lipson and his colleagues have created computer modeling software that models a structure and then shows how it has changed, based on current sensor data. The process would show how a structure had changed over time.

Although many of these technologies are still in their developmental and testing phases, eventually they may allow us to do away with detailed, visual inspection of structures and instead allow for digital “always-on” monitoring.

(Scientific American)

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