It was the costliest disaster in Canadian history, but for Fort McMurray residents trapped on clogged evacuation roads while the May 3, 2016 wildfire raged nearby, it was also something else: terrifying. According to engineer Sriram Narasimhan, however, coming technology in sensors and data analytics could soon make community evacuations in such crises safer and more orderly.
A professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo, and Canada Research Chair in Smart Infrastructure, he says that installing sensors on roadways and using their collected data analytics would allow rescue workers and police to determine which roads to use and when to wait for traffic to clear.
“That’s where I see the future of sensors in civil engineering,” explains Narasimhan, stressing the technology will provide better data to pave the way for the creation of a new, stronger infrastructure of roads, bridges and buildings.
Integrated team to develop sensors and data analytics
Narasimhan, whose research focuses on structural dynamics, says Waterloo Engineering offers an ideal environment to push the technology forward, which will require an understanding of how to build sensors, how to program them to collect the most relevant data and how to analyze that data so it can inform infrastructure decisions.
“It’s cross-disciplinary,” he says. “We have electrical engineers, computer engineers, and scientists, in addition to our civil engineers, who need to be working together to make the whole thing happen.”
Narasimhan says the resulting work contributes to a paradigm shift in civil engineering, which traditionally adheres to a “build and forget” approach – build a bridge in 1985 and hope it lasts 100 years, for instance. Sensors will allow cities to be proactive and watch for small issues before they become huge problems.
Waterloo Engineering’s unique education model utilizes campus buildings in classes
In coming years, Waterloo Engineering students will be exposed to the latest sensor research every time they walk across the breezeway bridge connecting the new Engineering 7 building to E5. The bridge will be cemented with instrumental sensors, or load cells, which measure the forces generated on it.
The sensors will be used as teaching tools, enabling students to compare modeling design assumptions with what happens in the real world. Meanwhile, accelerometers will measure vibration and how much the bridge moves.
“We’re instilling the sense of the importance of sensors and measurements,” Narasimhan says. “Hopefully, when students go and practice, they’ll adopt these things.”