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Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

This fact sheet is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information
Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-17-043    Date:  July 2017
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-17-043
Date: July 2017


The Exploratory Advanced Research Program

Assessing The Structural Health of America's Highway Bridges Effective Wireless Sensor Systems to Monitor Structural Health and Detect Damage


Exploratory Advanced Research…Next Generation Transportation Solutions

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© n.d. Drexel University. Engineers install wireless sensors to monitor the effects of vibration and strain on a highway bridge.

Bridges and other highway structures age, crack, and weaken over time. They can deteriorate because of wear and tear from everyday traffic, weather events, and crashes. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requires a visual inspection of bridges every two years.1 Inspections may not always provide a complete picture of structural conditions because the naked eye cannot detect internal changes or damage that occurs at a microscopic level. FHWA’s Exploratory Advanced Research (EAR) Program is supporting the following research to develop self-powered wireless sensors that can monitor structural health or assess bridge conditions. Michigan State University (MSU) is working on a project focused on structural health monitoring using wireless monitors. The project is called the “Ultra Low-Power Wireless Sensing System.” Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Southern California are collaborating with MSU on this project. Drexel University researchers are developing a suite of portable wireless sensors to provide important baseline data on structural health. These sensors can be installed as needed to assess damage from floods, accidents, or similar incidents that might compromise structural integrity. The Drexel research, “Multipurpose Wireless Sensors for Asset Management and Health Monitoring of Structures,” is being carried out in partnership with Smartsensys.

The Need for Long-Term Monitoring

More than 30 percent of existing bridges in the United States have exceeded their 50-year theoretical design life.2 Continuous, low-cost monitoring of the condition of bridges and other civil infrastructure systems could serve as an early warning system for serious structural damage. One of the chief obstacles to monitoring systems for damage detection in bridges is the high cost of installing enough sensors to provide high-resolution spatial data—this feature is key to capturing the spread and detection of small cracks, which can warn of more serious damage in the future.

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