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With a special software installed, ordinary mobile phones can measure the strength of bridges while we drive over the bridge in a car.
In tests, researchers from MIT in the USA have shown that mobile phones can collect data about vibrations in the bridge about as well as the fixed sensors we use today.
Using mobile phones is much cheaper than having fixed sensors, so the researchers hope this technology can lead to many more bridges being monitored continuously.
"The most important result is that it is possible to obtain information about the structural condition of bridges using the accelerometer in mobile phones," says Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT Sensable City Laboratory and one of the researchers behind the study, in a press release.
The researchers use the accelerometer to measure the vibrations that occur in a bridge when cars travel over it. This data is collected and then compared over time. Changes in the frequency over time may indicate that the structural strength of the bridge has changed.
Since all that is needed is an ordinary mobile phone and the software developed by the researchers, it would be possible to "crowdsource" the monitoring of the bridges to all of us who drive over the bridges. The researchers estimate that good information could increase the lifespan of the bridges by 15–30 years, as maintenance could be started at the right time.
"We still have some work ahead of us, but we believe that our method can be easily scaled up so that we can cover the whole country. It may not be the same accuracy as with fixed sensors, but it could work as an early warning system," says Carlo Ratti.