Technology has advanced to the point where the condition of bridges, tunnels and buildings can be monitored in unprecedented detail. Now a new Centre at Cambridge has been formed to kick-start the smart infrastructure revolution.
"London Underground needs to know if the Northern Line is good for another 20 years, or another 80, or longer. At the moment, nobody really knows."
—Professor Robert Mair
London Bridge, so far as we know, is not falling down. Whether we would be able to tell if it was about to, however, is a different question. And, if it was, we would need to calculate how much time it had left, so that we could establish when to deny people and traffic access for their own safety. Such matters have been preoccupying researchers like Professors Robert Mair and Kenichi Soga for most of their careers -- and with good reason.
Next to many icons of British infrastructure, London Bridge (39 years old in its present incarnation) is a mere spring chicken. Every day, millions of us use bridges, tunnels and pipelines constructed in the Victorian age. Our cities and towns are densely populated networks of infrastructure, much of it a century old or more. They are shaped by the clash of political and public expectations, but they are also home to some of the most important listed buildings, structures and heritage sites in the world. Given the scale of the job involved in ensuring that Britain's infrastructure remains standing, it seems both astonishing and oddly reassuring that most of it does.
Horror stories about what could happen if it all went wrong sometimes crop up in the news. In 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge near Minneapolis fell down during the evening rush hour. Thirteen people were killed and more than 100 were injured. This tragedy, it later emerged, was a direct result of the fact that those responsible for maintaining the bridge simply did not know enough about its condition to predict and prevent the collapse.
Yet such ignorance is fast becoming a thing of the past. Thanks to rapid advances in technologies like wireless sensors and fibre optics, it is now possible to keep both old and new infrastructure under constant surveillance, monitoring strain, temperature, displacement, humidity or even a crack in a wall. Researchers believe we are on the verge of developing 'smart infrastructure', which will allow buildings, tunnels, bridges, sea defences, or road and railway cuttings to be subjected to regular health checks at the touch of a button.