Scaling up innovative sensor installation on the Mighty Mac

March 5, 2019 by Kim Nowack, Michigan State University
MSU has developed sensors that can detect road wear, bridge defects and more. Some sensors have already been deployed to Michigan's iconic Mackinac Bridge. Credit: MSU

The first 20 prototype infrastructure sensors installed in 2016 on the Mackinac Bridge, powered solely by vibrations from traffic, have proven their durability and performed as intended. Now researchers from Michigan State University and Washington University in St. Louis are ready to roll out the next phase of testing, installing up to 2,000 of the tiny devices to explore the logistics of a large-scale deployment and provide useful monitoring data to the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

"The successful large-scale deployment of this novel low-cost sensing technology will dramatically transform the economics of preservation/management and ultimately improve the serviceability of bridges," said Nizar Lajnef, MSU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "We also will explore how the collected data could be used for improved cost-effective, condition-based maintenance of the Mackinac Bridge structural components. We are excited that this will be the first fully instrumented bridge in the country using advanced wireless and self-powered monitoring technology."

Beginning in 2016, Lajnef and Shantanu Chakrabartty, WUSTL professor, started deploying prototype sensors beneath the bridge as part of a demonstration project sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration. The Mackinac Bridge provided a high-profile testing ground for these self-powered sensors. Since then, the new and improved versions of the self-powered sensors have been developed as a part of the National Science Foundation's Cyber-physical Systems program and have been successfully deployed on the bridge.

Several of the sensors' features make them attractive to infrastructure managers. Because the sensors have no external , they eliminate the issue of requiring battery changes or wiring to power sources. They also don't need wires to access the data they collect; staff can access the information wirelessly.

"In addition to being a statewide need, the development of effective methods for preserving our transportation infrastructure systems is a critical national need," Lajnef said. "Through this large-scale deployment, we would show that the system can autonomously monitor the loading experienced by the bridge components, and that the information from the sensors can be collected without significant human intervention and at significantly low cost."

MSU is an ideal partner in advances such as these due to the university's commitment to test emerging technologies for new mobility solutions. As part of this initiative, the university is well equipped to advance mobility by leveraging its expertise and collaborating with strong industry partners.

MBA staff will assist with installation of the additional sensors, offering equipment and access to the bridge. MBA will retain ownership of the data gathered by the sensors, with WUSTL providing the sensor prototypes and MSU providing tools to analyze and interpret that data for bridge staff to use in guiding engineering and maintenance decisions. The team can use the data for research publication with approval from MBA.

The team plans to start installation of the additional and improved this summer. The researchers will coordinate installation timing and any necessary lane closures with MBA staff.

Explore further: Building smart infrastructure sensors

Related Stories

Building smart infrastructure sensors

September 21, 2016

Our nation's infrastructure includes massive networks of highways, roadways, bridges, ports, railways, energy delivery systems and aviation. Every American is reliant on these networks, yet they need an enormous amount of ...

Smarter, safer bridges with Sandia sensors

July 3, 2018

Along with flying cars and instantaneous teleportation, smart bridges, roads and subway lines that can send out warnings when they're damaged are staples of futuristic transportation systems in science fiction.

Recommended for you

Physicists discover new class of pentaquarks

March 26, 2019

Tomasz Skwarnicki, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, has uncovered new information about a class of particles called pentaquarks. His findings could lead to a new understanding ...

Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation

March 26, 2019

People in many parts of the world feed birds in their backyards, often due to a desire to help wildlife or to connect with nature. In the United States alone, over 57 million households in the feed backyard birds, spending ...

Matter waves and quantum splinters

March 25, 2019

Physicists in the United States, Austria and Brazil have shown that shaking ultracold Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) can cause them to either divide into uniform segments or shatter into unpredictable splinters, depending ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.