Smart technologies in smart infrastructure creates smart building

To become a smart city, you need smart Technologies. Sensors and other meters are needed to collect and analyze data. Smart cities need to be able to check buildings, bridges, sea defenses and road and railway cuttings at the touch of a button. Engineers at Cambridge University are now developing technologies that will allow the conditions of these infrastructures to be monitored in unprecedented detail.

All the infrastructure, old and new, needs to be put under constant surveillance and this can be done with new technologies using wireless sensors and fiber optics. Strain, temperature, displacement, humidity or even a crack in the wall can be monitored. Researchers at the University are developing these technologies, called smart technologies, and they hope to bring them to the market by 2016. The University of Cambridge is working together for this project with industry and technology companies.

There already are a lot of sensor technologies, but they aren’t used routinely enough in infrastructure at the moment. The financial aspect of these technologies is also an issues at this point. Constant monitoring all the city’s infrastructure and maintaining it costs billions of pounds every year. So even a small improvement in efficiency can result in major savings.

Professor Robert Mair is the principal investigator of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC). CSIC is an innovative and knowledge centre that’s involved in the University’s Department of Engineering, Department of Architecture, Computer Laboratory and Judge Business School. Mair said that the project on smart technologies they are working on now is hugely exciting and important.

Because most of the UK’s infrastructure is more than 100 years old, infrastructure owners feel the need to be involved in the emerging technologies in sensors and data management. They can use these technologies to quantify and define the extent of ageing and the consequent remaining design life of their infrastructure.

So these new technologies have a lot of advantages for old infrastructure, but they are also of use for new infrastructures since they can lead to more efficient and economic construction of new infrastructure. This is because engineers will be able to better understand how infrastructure is performing during and after construction. This will lead to more informed decision-making and an improved performance-based design and construction process.

One of the key objectives of the research at the Cambridge University is looking for a way to remove the need for batteries in sensors. A project of CSIC is looking at using micro-electrical mechanical systems in which miniature devices and circuitry can be etched onto a silicon chip as part of the sensors. So they could be able to include a very small turbine to harness the wind power produced by passing trains in the tunnel, making the system entirely self-sufficient. The same technology can be used on bridges by for example using the vibrations from passing vehicles.

Another key research for the IKC is optical-fiber monitoring. Cambridge engineers installed optical fibers around the inside of the old brick tunnel when a new tunnel was built beneath the century-old Thames link tunnel in London.  These fibers continuously measure the changing strains and temperature at every single point along the fiber. Previously, engineers has to use conventional survey techniques to analyze the impact of the new tunnel. Now they can use this new optical fiber technology to measure strain directly and continuously. 

In the future, incorporating optical fibers and sensors during the construction process will enable an unprecedented level of ‘cradle to grave’ analysis of how our infrastructure actually performs. Over-estimation now goes into the use of many components in buildings and structures to guarantee safety. In the future, better monitoring would allow construction firms to make more accurate judgments about how much materials to use. Construction firms should have it easier to insert sensors and optical fibers into walls, facades and beam by adding them to components in the factory before they reach the building site. This is what can be called ‘smart’ building.

£17m has been granted to CSIC to conduct the research. £10m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board and another £7 from the industry collaborators. Professor Mair hopes that the Centre will have advanced the technology and the business cases sufficiently by 2016 and he hopes that they will be able to support their future through industry collaboration alone.