The deadly train derailment that occurred recently in DuPont, Washington, raises a lot of questions. It was a new route, the first trip tested with passengers, and the train was traveling at 50 mph over the zone’s speed limit. Shortly after the tragedy, the President tweeted about a need for increased spending on infrastructure. While the comment may not have applied to the situation (the track was new and there are still questions about the cause of the derailment), it certainly applies to many of our roads, bridges, and other essential components of infrastructure. As we look to the future and think about upgrading our country’s infrastructure, we need to think about how that future might look. Could IoT play a role in infrastructure safety and prevent tragedies all over the country?
The Magnitude of Our Infrastructure Safety Problem
All over the United States, infrastructure safety issues are popping up all the time. Flint, Michigan’s water crisis was a stark reminder that many of our aging pipes are still made of lead, and can have severe health consequences for citizens if not replaced. Bridge scour is becoming an enormous safety issue, as the more than 1,500 highway bridge failures since 1966 illustrate. Roadway repairs are underfunded, and 1 in 5 miles of highway are in poor condition. Traffic fatalities are on the rise, as streets are not only poorly maintained, but not equipped to handle the high volume of cars our roadways are seeing due to increased urbanization.
IoT Applications in Infrastructure
While the Internet of Things can’t prevent all car crashes caused by drunk or inattentive drivers, there are several potential applications for smart technology that can help monitor infrastructure and help keep roads and bridges safer. Sensors and smart cement (sensors built directly into the cement) collect crucial data from roadways and bridges and trigger maintenance alerts when necessary. In bridge safety monitoring, for example, the system can collect real-time data like water levels, bridge vibrations and load on the bridge, and other factors that relate to bridge safety.
IoT systems also have the potential to help keep drivers out of dangerous situations due to weather, congested traffic conditions, and other hazards—one city in France is already testing a system like this to dynamically sense hazards in real time and alert drivers. Some Italian roads are now monitored for dangerous potholes using drones, reducing risks to engineers on the job and cutting down on manpower needed to maintain road safety. Because the potential applications for sensors in infrastructure safety and efficiency are so broad, IoT systems could also be used to monitor other essential systems like water pipe infrastructure to reduce waste and ensure pipe safety.
The Role of Human Error in Infrastructure and Transit Accidents
In the aftermath of the Washington train derailment, some say that if positive train control (PCT) was fully installed in the train, the system would not have allowed the train to surpass the speed limit by such a large margin. Without that smart system in place to detect the potential safety hazard, the train sped on. Could that have prevented the tragedy? It’s not clear. Unfortunately, IoT sensors can’t always prevent tragedy due to human error. With that said, IoT devices can help identify particularly dangerous roadways, allowing cities to allocate more resources to improving and monitoring those areas.
Indications show that IoT sensors becoming standard in upgraded infrastructure (and added to existing systems) is a smart way to help ensure public safety and allocate available resources. We’ll hopefully see fewer cases of bridge collapses and other infrastructure failures following sensor implementation, except in cases of natural disasters, when billions and trillions of dollars in damage can occur, even in new infrastructure systems. Now that we have the technology that could save thousands of lives, it’s time to put it to work.
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