Scientists Develop Smartphone Sensor to Monitor Crumbling Bridges and Roads

Ageing American Infrastructure costs money and potentially lives.
Jessica Miley

Scientists are hoping crowdsourced data collection on the state of aging civil infrastructure will save lives. Scientists from the University of Missouri have developed smartphone-based technology that could be used by anyone to report on the condition of the USA’s crumbling civil infrastructure. 


A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States infrastructure like bridges and roads a D+ rating nationwide on an A - F scale. 

Gradually decaying systems could not only cost the economy billions of dollars it could also claim lives if there were an accident like the recent Morandi bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy. 

Smartphones sensors provide clear, consistent data

It is clear infrastructure across the nation needs monitoring but that in itself could cost millions and take too long. Instead, the University of Missouri scientists have developed a sensor that uses existing smartphone technology that can effortlessly transmit the data wirelessly to a database while its user is riding on a road. 


"Many of the existing methods to monitor our civil infrastructure systems have technical issues and are not user-centered," said Amir Alavi, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the MU College of Engineering, with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Biomedical, Biological and Chemical Engineering. 

"People are looking for smart, cost-effective, scalable and user-centered approaches. With current advances in technology, people can help monitor or detect problems using their own devices, and smartphone technology allows us to do that with civil infrastructure." 

Proven technology will get rolled out

Alvari used expertise from Bill Buttlar, the Glen Barton Chair of Flexible Pavement Technology, to develop this innovative solution to monitor roads and bridges.

"Assessing roads, bridges, and airfields with affordable sensors, such as those found in smartphones, really works," Buttlar said

"With a smartphone, we can stitch together many inexpensive measurements to accurately assess things like the roughness or deterioration of a road surface. In a recent project sponsored by the Missouri Department of Transportation, we also showed that it can accurately assess the condition of airport runways and taxiways." 

Current methods of assessing aging infrastructure often require the shutting down of roads or bridges. A sample is then taken which is compared to a baseline. 

This exercise can be costly, time-consuming and cause significant traffic problems. Crowdsourced data collection with smartphones is a viable alternative that is lower in cost and could be more effective. 

Actioning observations the next step

Drivers can upload data such as bumpiness, visual conditions and more to a cloud-hosted database with relative ease. The research team is now working on models that will allow for the quick application of the data so that is can be compared to a healthy sample and action taken if requires.