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Using Smartphones to Fix America’s Aging Infrastructure

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Addressing America’s aging infrastructure somehow keeps dropping to the bottom of our national to-do list, despite the gravity of potential safety and economic consequences of inaction carries. In fact, U.S. infrastructure scored a cumulative D+ on a scale of A-F in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) quadrennial infrastructure report card in 2017, a barely passing grade.

Nations around the world are prioritizing their infrastructure or building it from the ground-up. If current trends continue, however, the U.S. is in danger of becoming less economically competitive. According to the University of Missouri’s estimations, failure of civil infrastructure like bridges and roads could have resulted in a 1 percent reduction in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product, or $200 billion, in 2017 alone. Not to mention the danger to the millions of people traveling on potentially questionable roads and bridges every day.

But, it’s a big country, with millions of miles of paved roads and more than 600,000 bridges. Monitoring it all takes a lot of work and costs a lot of money. Scientists at the University of Missouri have developed a dead-simple, cheap and effective monitoring system. It harnesses the power of the crowd to help keep a watchful eye on the nation’s roads and bridges.

The best part: any driver with a smartphone can pitch in with next to no effort.

“Many of the existing methods to monitor our civil infrastructure systems have technical issues and are not user-centered”

“Many of the existing methods to monitor our civil infrastructure systems have technical issues and are not user-centered,” said Amir Alavi, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the MU College of Engineering.

“People are looking for smart, cost-effective, scalable, and user-centered approaches. With current advances in technology, people can help monitor or detect problems using their own devices. Smartphone technology allows us to do that with civil infrastructure.”

Using technology already integrated into most mobile phones—gyroscopes, accelerometers, and cameras—could allow those phones to automatically collect and wirelessly transmit infrastructure data to a central database. Thus, it would provide real-time tracking of the deterioration of the road’s surface. The scientists hope that the sheer volume of data collected in this manner would give civil engineers deeper insights about the overall state of bridges and roads that would have been otherwise impossible or cost-prohibitive to collect.

Current methods of assessing the condition of roads typically require closing them down, snarling traffic with detours, and generally making driving a more miserable experience for everybody. If the data collection happens automatically, workers can be dispatched to precise areas to address issues early. Engineers, on the other hand, can get a better sense of segments of road that are likely to require more frequent repairs.

The more drivers use the sensors, the more effective the monitoring would become. Squeezing added utility from an under-used asset—millions of drivers, all carrying smartphones—drops the implementation cost of such a system to almost negligible, even at scale. The implementation costs would be a drop in the bucket when compared to the costs of electronic monitoring systems or labor costs of manual monitoring.

“Assessing roads, bridges, and airfields with affordable sensors, such as those found in smartphones, really works” 

“Assessing roads, bridges, and airfields with affordable sensors, such as those found in smartphones, really works,” said Bill Buttlar, the Glen Barton Chair of Flexible Pavement Technology, who partnered with Alavi on the development.

“With a smartphone, we can stitch together many inexpensive measurements to accurately assess things like the roughness or deterioration of a road surface. In a recent project sponsored by the Missouri Department of Transportation, we also showed that it can accurately assess the condition of airport runways and taxiways.”

Crowdsourcing can be a powerful source if properly harnessed. Every day, millions of phones in the pockets of millions of drivers traverse the nation’s bridges and roadways. For a cost of nearly nothing, we can turn each of those phones into mobile infrastructure monitors. This would allow work crews to operate more efficiently and give engineers clues about recurring problem areas that might need rethinking. In fact, it might even lead to fewer headache-inducing traffic jams.

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