Your phone could show if a bridge is about to collapse
In summer 2017, Thomas Matarazzo, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, landed in San Francisco with a colleague. They rented two cars, drove up to the Golden Gate bridge, timing it to the city’s rush hour, and rode over to the other side in heavy traffic. Once they reached the other end, they turned around and did it again. And again. And again.
“I drove over that bridge 100 times over five days, back and forth,” says Matarazzo, now an associate director of High-Performance Computing in the Center for Innovation in Engineering at the United States Military Academy, West Point. “It was surprisingly stressful, I never anticipated that. I had to maintain the speed of about 30 miles an hour when the speed limit is 45. I felt bad for everybody behind me.”
Matarazzo had to drive slowly because the quality of data they were collecting depended on it. The pair was designing and testing a new smartphone app that could gather data about the bridge’s structural integrity—a low-cost citizen-scientist alternative to the current industrial methods, which aren’t always possible, partly because they’re expensive and complex. In the era of aging infrastructure, when some bridges in the United States and other countries are structurally unsound to the point of collapsing, such an app could inform authorities about the need for urgent repairs, or at least prompt closing the most dangerous structures.
There are 619,588 bridges in the U.S., and some of them are very old. For example, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge connecting Philadelphia to Camden, N.J., is 96-years-old while the Brooklyn Bridge is 153. So it’s hardly surprising that many could use some upgrades. “In the U.S., a lot of them were built in the post-World War II period to accommodate the surge of motorization,” says Carlo Ratti, architect and engineer who directs the Senseable City Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They are beginning to reach the end of their life.”
According to the 2022 American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s report, one in three U.S. bridges needs repair or replacement. The Department of Transportation (DOT) National Bridge Inventory (NBI) database reveals concerning numbers. Thirty-six percent of U.S. bridges need repair work and over 78,000 bridges should be replaced. More than 43,500 bridges are rated in poor condition and classified as “structurally deficient” – an alarming description. Yet, people drive over them 167.5 million times a day. The Pittsburgh bridge which collapsed in January this year—only hours before President Biden arrived to discuss the new infrastructure law—was on the “poor” rating list.
Assessing the structural integrity of a bridge is not an easy endeavor. Most of the time, these are visual inspections, Matarazzo explains. Engineers check cracks, rust and other signs of wear and tear. They also check for wildlife—birds which may build nests or even small animals that make homes inside the bridge structures, which can slowly chip at the structure. However, visual inspections may not tell the whole story. A more sophisticated and significantly more expensive inspection requires placing special sensors on the bridge that essentially listen to how the bridge vibrates.
“Some bridges can afford expensive sensors to do the job, but that comes at a very high cost—hundreds of thousands of dollars per bridge per year,” Ratti says.
We may think of bridges as immovable steel and concrete monoliths, but they naturally vibrate, oscillating slightly. That movement can be influenced by the traffic that passes over them, and even by wind. Bridges of different types vibrate differently—some have longer vibrational frequencies and others shorter ones. A good way to visualize this phenomenon is to place a ruler over the edge of a desk and flick it slightly. If the ruler protrudes far off the desk, it will vibrate slowly. But if you shorten the end that hangs off, it will vibrate much faster. It works similarly with bridges, except there are more factors at play, including not only the length, but also the design and the materials used.
The long suspension bridges such as the Golden Gate or Verrazano Narrows, which hang on a series of cables, are more flexible, and their vibration amplitudes are longer. The Golden Gate Bridge can vibrate at 0.106 Hertz, where one Hertz is one oscillation per second. “Think about standing on the bridge for about 10 seconds—that's how long it takes for it to move all the way up and all the way down in one oscillation,” Matarazzo says.
On the contrary, the concrete span bridges that rest on multiple columns like Brooklyn Bridge or Manhattan Bridge, are “stiffer” and have greater vibrational frequencies. A concrete bridge can have a frequency of 10 Hertz, moving 10 times in one second—like that shorter stretch of a ruler.
The special devices that can pick up and record these vibrations over time are called accelerometers. A network of these devices for each bridge can cost $20,000 to $50,000, and more—and require trained personnel to place them. The sensors also must stay on the bridge for some time to establish what’s a healthy vibrational baseline for a given bridge. Maintaining them adds to the cost. “Some bridges can afford expensive sensors to do the job, but that comes at a very high cost—hundreds of thousands of dollars per bridge per year,” Ratti says.
Making sense of the readouts they gather is another challenge, which requires a high level of technical expertise. “You generally need somebody, some type of expert capable of doing the analysis to translate that data into information,” says Matarazzo, which ticks up the price, so doing visual inspections often proves to be a more economical choice for state-level DOTs with tight budgets. “The existing systems work well, but have downsides,” Ratti says. The team thought the old method could use some modernizing.
Smartphones, which are carried by millions of people, contain dozens of sensors, including the accelerometers capable of picking up the bridges’ vibrations. That’s why Matarazzo and his colleague drove over the bridge 100 times—they were trying to pick up enough data. Timing it to rush hour supported that goal because traffic caused more “excitation,” Matarazzo explains. “Excitation is a big word we use when we talk about what drives the vibration,” he says. “When there's a lot of traffic, there's more excitation and more vibration.” They also collaborated with Uber, whose drivers made 72 trips across the bridge to gather data in different cars.
The next step was to clean the data from “noise”—various vibrations that weren’t relevant to the bridge but came from the cars themselves. “It could be jumps in speed, it could be potholes, it could be a bunch of other things," Matarazzo says. But as the team gathered more data, it became easier to tell the bridge vibrational frequencies from all others because the noises generated by cars, traffic and other things tend to “cancel out.”
The team specifically picked the Golden Gate bridge because the civil structural engineering community had studied it extensively over the years and collected a host of vibrational data, using traditional sensors. When the researchers compared their app-collected frequencies with those gathered by 240 accelerometers formerly placed on the Golden Gate, the results were the same—the data from the phones converged with that from the bridge’s sensors. The smartphone-collected data were just as good as those from industry devices.
The study authors estimate that officials could use crowdsourced data to make key improvements that would help new bridges to last about 14 years longer.
The team also tested their method on a different type of bridge—not a suspension one like the Golden Gate, but a concrete span bridge in Ciampino, Italy. There they compared 280 car trips over the bridge to the six sensors that had been placed on the bridge for seven months. The results were slightly less matching, but a larger volume of trips would fix the divergence, the researchers wrote in their study, titled Crowdsourcing bridge dynamic monitoring with smartphone vehicle trips, published last month in Nature Communications Engineering.
Although the smartphones proved effective, the app is not quite ready to be rolled out commercially for people to start using. “It is still a pilot version,” so there’s room for improvement, says Ratti, who co-authored the study. “But on a more optimistic note, it has really low barriers to entry—all you need is smartphones on cars—so that makes the system easy to reach a global audience.” And the study authors estimate that the use of crowdsourced data would result in a new bridge lasting about 14 years longer.
Matarazzo hopes that the app could be eventually accessible for your average citizen scientist to collect the data and supply it to their local transportation authorities. “I hope that this idea can spark a different type of relationship with infrastructure where people think about the data they're collecting as some type of contribution or investment into their communities,” he says. “So that they can help their own department of transportation, their own municipality to support that bridge and keep it maintained better, longer and safer.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”