Smartphones Can Detect the Condition of Bridges

A simple app can track bridges as well as sensors.

Young businessman using mobile phone on Brooklyn Bridge, New York City.

 (pio3 /

Smartphones have changed lives in so many ways. They help people communicate, navigate, remember to pick up the laundry, and more. Now, smartphones may also help keep people safe while they travel. 

A recent study, published in the journal Nature Communications Engineering, led by researchers from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Laboratory, has shown that smartphone sensors are nearly as good at collecting information about bridge safety as sensors, according to MIT Technology Review.

The technology was developed by researchers at West Point Military Academy and other universities, and could provide much faster data collection. With the condition of infrastructure in the US, bridge safety is not something to be taken lightly. 

Almost as good as sensors
The structural integrity of bridges is usually determined in one of two ways: either stationary sensors collect data regarding the bridge’s vibrations, or the bridge is manually inspected by engineers at least every two years. But now there could be an easier way, by using drivers’ smartphones instead. 

Many smartphones already contain sensors that can pick up data regarding structural vibrations;  the same type of data that bridge sensors pick up, according to the organization Green Car Congress.

In addition, the researchers found that bridge vibration data could be picked up by smartphones while traveling over bridges in vehicles in real world conditions. That is to say on a regular everyday trip over a bridge, and not only during controlled experiment conditions.

Though the data from one trip wasn’t enough to gain meaningful information, the data from many trips created a useful, and accurate dataset. 

“The core finding is that information about structural health of bridges can be extracted from smartphone-collected accelerometer data,” director of the MIT Senseable Laboratory and study co-author Dr Carlo Ratti, told the science site Earth.Com.

How was the study conducted?
So how did the researchers do it? According to Earth.Com, the researchers conducted the study in two locations: the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California and a smaller bridge in Ciampino, Italy. 

The researchers drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, their sensor apps running, one hundred and two times. They also gave the app to seventy two Uber drivers who regularly cross the bridge over the course of their days. Once they had the data from the phones, they compared that data to the information from two hundred and forty sensors that had been placed on the bridge. Surprisingly they found that the data from their phones pretty much matched the data from the sensors. 

In Italy, according to MIT News, the researchers collected the data from two hundred and eighty trips across the bridge, and compared it to the data from six sensors that had been placed on the bridge. Though the results diverged a bit, the results were still quite similar. 

This method of ensuring the structural integrity of bridges is not meant to replace other methods, but rather to supplement it, and make it more efficient. It could save money and lives. 

 “We still have work to do, but we believe that our approach could be scaled up easily — all the way to the level of an entire country, told “It might not reach the accuracy that one can get using fixed sensors installed on a bridge, but it could become a very interesting early-warning system. Small anomalies could then suggest when to carry out further analyses.”

Millions of smartphone-carrying people drive over bridges every day. If the new method is put into use, it will go a long way to making bridges much safer.

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