Bridge technology could save hundreds of lives

John Egan

Millions of American drivers cross faulty or outdated bridges every day. In fact, the U.S. Society of Civil Engineers estimates more than one-fourth of U.S. bridges are in poor condition.

University of Maryland researcher Mehdi Kalantari says he's come up with wireless technology for bridges that potentially could save hundreds of lives.

Kalantari has created tiny wireless sensors that monitor and transmit minute-by-minute data about a bridge's structural integrity. A central computer analyzes the data and instantly warns of possible trouble.

Workers inspect a bridge in Missouri.

Kalantari says his wireless technology could avert the kind of bridge collapse that killed 13 people and injured 145 others in August 2007 on Minneapolis' I-35W. And he says his technology can achieve this at a fraction of the cost of more complicated wired systems.

Each wireless sensor costs about $20. An average highway bridge would need about 500 sensors for a total cost of about $10,000.

"This new approach makes preventive maintenance affordable -- even at a time when budgets are tight," Kalantari says in a news release. "Officials will be able to catch problems early and will have weeks or month to fix a problem."

Newer "smart" bridges, including the I-35W replacement in Minneapolis, have embedded networks of wired sensors. But Kalantari says the cost is too high for use on older bridges.

"A wired network approach will cost at least 100 times more than a wireless alternative, and that's simply unaffordable given the strain on local, state and federal budgets," Kalantari says.

Kalantari has tested the technology on bridges in Maryland. To commercialize his technology, he founded Resensys LLC, a startup in the University of Maryland's Technology Advancement Program incubator. He expects to ramp up production of the sensors in September.

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