Academic Awarded £100,000 for Developing Tech to 'Hear' Underground Infrastructures

The listening system for hearing infrastructures can be likened to a doctor's stethoscope.
Fabienne Lang

An academic from Loughborough University has been awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize. Dr. Alister Smith has been given £100,000 to keep developing underground monitoring systems that can hear when infrastructures are deteriorating. 

This is an extremely useful and vital civil engineering project that can improve our building, transport, and energy networks around the world. 


Listening to the underground

The prize is awarded to researchers who create internationally useful and renowned work, and whose careers are 'exceptionally promising.' 

What Smith's work focuses on is something that will prove useful for engineers on a global scale. Smith is developing acoustic emission technology that can detect when the soil beneath infrastructure moves. 

Academic Awarded £100,000 for Developing Tech to 'Hear' Underground Infrastructures
Dr. Alister Smith. Source: Loughborough University

Why is this so important? 

Most of the time, infrastructure is built on or in soil. However, the soil's strength changes over time. This can lead to structures built underground — from dams to tunnels, and building foundations — to move, and sometimes collapse with time. Often, without any warning. 

This deterioration can lead to disastrous economic, environmental, and societal effects.

Dr. Smith said, "Infrastructure is vital for economic growth and quality of life, with networks covering vast geographical areas to transport people and products, such as water, oil, and gas."

He continued, “Society urgently needs to be better prepared to face the grand challenges that threaten the longevity of our infrastructures, such as climate change and population growth, by exploiting technology to increase understanding of asset deterioration, and improve decision-making and asset management."

Academic Awarded £100,000 for Developing Tech to 'Hear' Underground Infrastructures
Source: Andy Rogers/Flickr

Due to our current global situation and pressures, which include climate change and rapid population growth, existing infrastructures are suffering and deteriorating quickly. 

So the need for a system that can pick up these deteriorating circumstances is pressing. 

How can you hear soil move?

When soil moves, it's known as acoustic emission (AE). When it moves, it releases high-frequency energy that is inaudible.

There are already AE systems and monitoring systems that infrastructure experts use to ensure the integrity of steel and concrete, but not to monitor underground structures. 

Because soil moves in such unexpected and unforeseeable ways, unlike steel and concrete, it's incredibly hard to monitor. However, with technology updates, such as fiber optics, there are new ways of discreetly installing sensors. 

What is novel about Dr. Smith's research?

Dr. Smith's work focuses on how AI can assist in overcoming the challenges that AE soil data present.

He will use intelligent sensors (that use AI) to directly extract information on the health of the deteriorating underground infrastructures from the AE data they generate. 

Academic Awarded £100,000 for Developing Tech to 'Hear' Underground Infrastructures
The underground AE sensor system. Source: Loughborough University

The ultimate goal is to create a continuous real-time AE monitoring system discreetly placed along with the infrastructure.

If the system picks up on data that is considered to be a warning, the alert will automatically be sent to the users, possibly via mobile phone or to existing controller systems. 

Smith commented, "If we can listen to geotechnical assets with intelligent sensors – analogous to a stethoscope being used to listen to a patient’s heartbeat – we will be able to provide information on the condition of infrastructure and early warning of deterioration in real-time."

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