The sudden collapses of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, Italy in 2018 and the condo complex in Miami, Florida earlier this year had devastating human and financial consequences. Yet the structural failures that triggered these tragic events are more common than one would think.
With most bridges in Western Europe dating back to post-World War Two reconstruction and most US construction even farther still to the 1930s New Deal, older structures are reaching their age limits. To give an example, a bridge’s theoretical lifespan is no more than 100 years; in France alone, nearly 25,000 out of the existing 260,000 bridges are structurally deficient.
With insufficient budget to repair or replace older constructions, infrastructure operators look to prioritize the work and their spending. A robust and reliable way of monitoring structural integrity can help them decide which infrastructure needs only minimal maintenance and which needs major investment to prolong their life cycles.
Sercel had been looking closely at structural health monitoring (SHM) as part of its diversification to find new applications for its technology. It realized it had the right sensors and skills to develop a solution that could wirelessly, remotely, and affordably monitor the integrity of entire buildings and infrastructure in real time to alert operators of any irregularities.
As Laurent Guerineau, Technology Innovation Manager, explains: “We discovered that existing SHM sensors are not fit for purpose. They’re too big, too expensive, not autonomous and can only be used for short periodic audit surveys. We saw this as an exciting opportunity to disrupt the SHM market.”
Sercel’s QuietSeis® digital accelerometers that are usually deployed for seismic acquisition have the advantage of being small, having low power consumption and costing much less than currently used SHM seismometers. Jean-Cedric Prouvost, VP, Strategy & Diversification, continues: “Because our sensors are so sensitive, we knew they could provide much better data for more accurate diagnostic analysis. And the big difference is that they can be left on critical structures permanently to conduct continuous monitoring.”
It took Sercel two years to develop S-lynks, its fully integrated SHM solution. As well as benefitting from the experience of its experts in R&D, manufacturing and sensors for harsh environments, the project team also reached out to external expertise to fill knowledge gaps. Alexandre Maugere, Program Manager for the S-lynks project, summarizes the process: “This was a totally new area for us, so, as well as drawing on our own different backgrounds, we also had to bring in experts from different engineering disciplines, including subcontractors for skills we didn’t have, to help with the many important elements needed for the new system, such as radio transmission, cloud platform infrastructure, and operating autonomy.”
According to Laurent, working in an open and supportive environment was also a key driver: “We were lucky to have so many people with brilliant ideas who felt they could propose and discuss these ideas and define the project. As a result, we accepted and really pushed new technologies.”
For the French and Italian markets, Sercel also partnered with Apave, a recognized player that knows the market and has expertise in structural data analysis and interpretation. Jean-Cedric explains: “We’re not structural engineers and don’t have the footprint to deploy SHM systems ourselves, so this collaboration has been really valuable. It gave us a better understanding of the needs of the sector and, as we learned more, we had to be prepared to change direction. This flexibility gave us the opportunity to try new things, breaking new ground for Sercel.”
S-lynks was launched commercially in November 2020. Unlike other SHM techniques that look at very specific features, S-lynks is the first monitoring system on the market to really provide a global view of a structure’s behavior. This means operators can spot the problem and take the appropriate action. Sercel is confident that its SHM system will be embedded in the fabric of “smart cities” of the future.
Besides the obvious benefit of helping to protect people and the built world, Jean-Cedric can also see the environmental gains. “The construction industry is one of the biggest emitters of CO2. If we can safely extend the lifetime of major structures, we can expect a big reduction in unnecessary construction and related emissions. On a global scale, the potential is huge.”
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