As an undergraduate at Washington State University, John Lund worked as a summer intern for the Alaska Department of Transportation, pushing tedious paperwork on utility relocations or traveling across the state to inspect telephone poles or road culverts.
“I would see some of the ridiculous things you had to do for inspections,” he says, laughing at the decade-old memory. “Telephone poles have these little tin letters nailed to them. Someone had to fly to Bethel or drive to Homer with a map and a stack of permits for what’s supposed to be there and see if it still is.”
“So you drive 200 miles, get a hotel room, drive up to this pole sticking in the ground and check the tin letters on it. You spend a dollar per pole for the tin letters and $700 to send someone out to match those letters with something on a sheet of paper. And what am I checking? To see that it’s still there.”
In contrast, a major bridge in a big city likely has sophisticated electronic monitoring systems; they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and need constant power. No one would spend that kind of money to monitor individual culverts or telephone poles.
Still, all those culverts and telephone poles are tiny bits of the billions of dollars invested in infrastructure all over Alaska. With no cheap way to watch over all of them, agencies have been reduced to periodically sending workers to check on them, or waiting until a structure fails and repairing it.
Even as an intern, Lund knew there had to be a better way. But technology needed to take a few significant leaps before a truly great solution was at hand. In the last five years, that has happened.
Now, monitoring culverts and telephone poles may not excite you. But that was just the problem Lund, an electrical engineering professor at UAA, and professor Todd Petersen set out to solve.
Two innovations have changed the game: circuits that can power off without losing the data collected, and capacitors that can charge and discharge endlessly using any little trickle of electricity. Think solar temperature differentials in the ocean or wave action.
Using these new tools, Lund has a patent pending on a long-life, wireless sensor that makes monitoring remote infrastructure cheap, easy and reliable.
His sensor fits in the palm of your hand. It is literally a small box that can be filled with circuits programmed to detect humidity, water flow, temperature, tilt, sound or other useful details.
Individual sensors form networks with others programmed the same way; each sensor collects and stores data from every other in the network. Only one sensor needs the capability to transmit data from the entire network. That could be to a cellular network, a satellite or a similar sensor on a vehicle that can pass close to the network.
Similar technology could be used to keep an eye on your weekend cabin in Cooper Landing or your boat in Whittier. It could even monitor the fence you can’t see through the trees, or alert you that there’s a spruce bark beetle problem in a corner of your property.
Sometimes things very close to you can also be remote. How about the roof of your house? You don’t visit it often and usually don’t know it’s failed until you see a stain on your ceiling. Lund’s monitors can detect color and humidity, like green moss creeping across shingles, holding in moisture and promoting rot.
Ideas like these are why Lund likes to talk about his new technology. Other people may come up with applications he’s never thought of.
“This technology is disruptive in the sense that it creates something that didn’t exist before and ideas that didn’t exist before. It’s startling,” Lund says. “People immediately think of all the stuff they could do with it.”
Already, rural Alaskans have seen the potential to detect water pipes that are beginning to freeze. Monitors designed to register temperature change or water flow could detect the need for a little heat tape or insulation before you’re looking at a half-mile of frozen pipe that costs $100,000 to fix.
Outside Alaska, the World Health Organization is considering using sensors in places like Afghanistan to measure irrigation systems that are too dangerous to inspect.
But don’t sniff at the lonely road culverts. They may cost only $200 but their failure could mean a $200,000 road repair. If it happens in winter, triple that cost. Cheap sensors can serve as early warning systems against catastrophic failures.
Lund emphasizes that his sensors are no replacement for humans who know and understand structural integrity and failure rates; they just allow for more effective use of precious human labor.