Researchers propose 'skinning' bridges for fault detection

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Potsdam in Germany have pioneered a new way to continually monitor the physical condition of bridges, aircraft, buildings and other large structures. They have produced a material, or skin, that varies its electrical charge whenever it experiences a change in pressure.

"We have just demonstrated that we can use this skin to locate and detect cracks," said Simon Laflamme, who led the research as a graduate student in the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "It is a very large stress gauge."

They have proposed developing patches of the material that can be affixed to areas where cracks and stresses are likely to appear, such as the undersides of bridges. The skins would detect any potential problems and relay their findings back through a wireless network.

Such sensors, should they be widely adopted, would add to the tsunami of sensor data that is expected to flood networks and computer systems .

The technology could help better gauge the condition of the world's bridges, buildings and other structures. Today, most structures are inspected visually, a process that is expensive, time-consuming and inexact. A sensor network covering such structures could eliminate, or at least reduce, the need for visual inspections.

Each patch would be electronically charged and able to detect stress or other problems by a change in its capacitance, or the amount of electricity it holds.