VTC, UVM, UMaine Win $4 Million NSF Grant to Create Next Gen Sensor Networks for Infrastructure Monitoring

06 Oct 2021

Program Also Aims to Spur New Manufacturing Sector in Vermont, Maine and Develop Workforce to Serve It

BURLINGTON, Vt. — As the U.S. Congress deliberates over legislation that would massively upgrade the country’s aging infrastructure, researchers at the University of Vermont, the University of Maine and Vermont Technical College have received a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and test new technologies that could make monitoring the safety and performance of infrastructure less expensive, more accurate and more widespread, resulting in more dependable, durable structures in the future.

The project also addresses human infrastructure, as the national legislation proposes to do, through engaging a group of faculty, graduate students and undergraduates at the three schools to create a trained workforce that could design and manufacture the new technologies the research project will develop and make use of.  K-12 students will also participate.

The project’s key contribution will be to develop and deploy wireless sensor networks that can be quickly and cheaply imbedded in existing infrastructure and built into new structures that will relay a wealth of data about the structure’s integrity to cloud-based servers via Internet of Things technology. The current generation of infrastructure sensors conveys information through cables, often fixed in conduits, that make deploying them expensive, limit their placement within a structure and make moving them difficult.

The new system will also use emerging 5G networks, which allow much greater rates of data transmission and more flexibility in how sensors communicate with the cloud and with one another, resulting in a significantly richer data flow. The system will also employ AI-enabled microrobots able to place the sensors in small or inaccessible spots that humans can’t reach.

“These advanced technologies are a game-changer; they will leap-frog the legacy equipment we currently use to measure the performance of infrastructure and allow us to much more effectively monitor the safety of many more structures in the future,” said Dryver Huston, principal investigator and professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Vermont. “There is a real need for these technologies nationally and globally, and real potential for Vermont and Maine to take the lead in developing a manufacturing sector to serve it.”

“This will indeed be transformative,” said co-principal investigator Eric Landis, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maine. “Sensing and data analysis capabilities are advancing at a very fast pace.  This project will accelerate field implementation of the new technologies in a way that will benefit the public.”

“These technologies are needed as we look towards upgrading our critical infrastructure, and understanding the land changes that, more and more, impact that critical infrastructure,” said Mary O’Leary, co-principal investigator and chair of the Civil & Environmental Engineering Technology at Vermont Technical College. “It’s wonderful that Vermont and Maine will be collaborators and leaders in investigating and addressing these challenges. We look forward to the partnership of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, and the sharing of resources and knowledge with K-12 students in both states.”

Because the new technology is flexible and inexpensive to install, structures large and small will be able to make use of it. By and large, only monumental infrastructure like large bridges, buildings, dams and mines, where failure would result in catastrophic loss of life, use sensors today.

Another key advantage of the low cost of the wireless system—sensor networks could be installed ubiquitously in projects as they are being built, when problems they uncover during the construction process can be easily fixed, preventing harder-to-address and potentially dangerous problems down the road.

Technology will be developed and deployed in testbeds located throughout region

The researchers will create and study the technology they are developing by deploying it in a series of testbeds in locations throughout Vermont and Maine, each examining a different infrastructure element.

Areas the testbeds will cover include:

  • Coastal structures like wind turbines. Sensors will also be placed in estuaries to predict storm surges and extreme events.
  • Subsurface infrastructure like water and sewer pipes, telecommunications and power grids, culverts and tunnels.
  • Highway structures like roads, bridges and overpasses.
  • Installations on mountains and hillsides that would give advance warning of landslides.

Locations for the testbeds will be determined in the early months of the four-year project.  Faculty and students will assist with the development and deployment of the sensor networks at the testbeds.

The project envisions applications that significantly advance how and where monitoring is currently done. For instance, researchers plan to develop insect-like, sensor-carrying AI-controlled drones, swarms of which would monitor highway infrastructure. They also plan to imbed sensors in offshore, floating wind turbines, taking advantage of the much greater information flow the system makes possible to test the structures under varying wind, current and wave combinations, a highly complex set of interacting data.

The project builds on the complementary expertise of researchers at the three schools. UVM’s Huston has expertise in structural health monitoring, electromagnetic sensing, and electromagnetic systems, for instance. The University of Maine’s Landis is expert in infrastructure durability, monitoring and advanced fabrication techniques. VTC’s O’Leary has expertise in stormwater management and hydrology.

The research project will be closely connected with local communities in both Vermont and Maine. Researchers will partner with community members in identifying problems to pursue. In addition, the project will form an advisory panel of industry and governmental stakeholders who will provide guidance on project activities and on hiring and training decisions.