Kelly McSweeney

Dec 12th 2018

Sensors, Sensors Everywhere: Infrastructure Technology


Infrastructure is designed to last many years, but what happens when roads crumble, bridges crack and new research presents better options for electric grids and water systems? Infrastructure technology — like self-healing concrete, embedded sensors, high-speed rail and alternative energy sources — is available, but introducing it to a busy city is complicated and expensive.

With our world becoming highly technological, there are tons of instances where we see modernization occurring with old infrastructures. Transportation technology and synthetic biology could change the way cities operate, but is it better to slowly chip away and replace, or just start anew?

Out With the Old

As infrastructure technology evolves, old infrastructures can either be repaired or replaced entirely. Any improvement is likely to disrupt the lives of the people around the infrastructure, especially massive projects such as a highway overhaul. Take Boston’s Big Dig project, for example.

The goal of the Big Dig was to revamp the city’s traffic flow in an ambitious attempt to modernize streets that were not originally designed for automobiles. In the end, according to the Boston Globe, the project was eight years behind schedule, billions of dollars over budget and included infamous mistakes such as design flaws, faulty concrete and a ceiling collapse that killed a car passenger in one of the new tunnels. Despite these colossal failures, the Globe concludes that there is a “grudging appreciation” for the Big Dig, which eventually wrangled traffic and created some of the most “valuable urban real estate” in the nation.

Several infrastructure overhauls are in progress today all around the world. Business Insider described the newly expanded Panama Canal, whose construction tripled the capacity of the waterway 102 years after it was built. London is upgrading its underground system with the Crossrail project, the largest construction project ever undertaken in Europe. Business Insider reports, “In 2026, an Iraqi skyscraper known as ‘The Bride’ will feature a ‘veil’ of solar panels and produce as much energy as it consumes. It’ll be 3,779 feet tall and contain parks, offices, restaurants, and a rail system.”

In With the New

Every year, U.S. roads and highways handle more than 4.3 trillion passenger miles, according to Transportation Creates Jobs. Highway upgrades could pose a serious issue for travelers. This is where technology comes in.

Instead of tearing out an entirely new highway, for example, older sections of the road could be replaced with self-healing concrete. According to CNN, researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands created bioconcrete, which is mixed just like regular concrete but also includes a special healing agent. Concrete is the world’s most popular building material, but it will eventually crack and let water inside, which can lead to a collapse. This new concrete includes bacteria. When it gets wet, the bacteria will germinate and produce limestone which conveniently closes up the cracks.

Infrastructure for Smart Cities

Another gradual modernization option is adding sensors to existing structures. According to Mashable, cities such as Atlanta and San Diego are already adding sensors to bridges and street lights, which can be used to monitor things like traffic, air quality and bridge stability.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our current national infrastructure a score of D+, but says plans for improvements include a smart grid for water, which puts sensors under manhole covers that can tell information about pressure, and placing sensors on customers’ faucets to capture information about water quality.

At the moment, our cities are already filled with sensors. According to The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), although there are already as many as 100+ million sensors in smartphones, cars, and homes in a major city, these do not form an infrastructure because the sensors are unrelated. If a system is created for sharing data, those individual sensing points could work together to provide a truly modern infrastructure for a smart city.