Too hot, too cold, too rainy, too dry - the Winnipeg climate in a nutshell. But although the city's weather often provides residents fodder for coffee-break complaints, the extremes are providing an ideal testing ground for new civil engineering technologies.
One expert at the University of Manitoba says plugging into the structural health of buildings, highways and bridges exposed to hot summers and icy winters can play a vital role in their longevity.
Aftab Mufti is an engineering professor and president of Intelligent Sensing for Innovative Structures (ISIS), a national research network for the civil engineering discipline.
He cites growing interest in a new technology called structural health monitoring (SHM), which uses sensors to keep tabs on the integrity of buildings or other large structures.
|Photos courtesy of Vector Construction Group|
|Bridges on the Alaskan Highway project built by Vector Construction Group have embedded sensors that monitor climate swings and their impact on structure longevity.|
"This technology (SHM) has been in emergence, and there are several people involved in various aspects of the development," says Mufti.
SHM involves instrumentation, sensors, data collection, interpretation of the data and decision-making to manage and maintain a structure, adds Mufti. "So it's a very vast subject, and there are several people from the academic world, the industrial world and the research entities all involved."
Mufti says SHM is a crucial step in the understanding and betterment of current civil engineering methodologies. "By monitoring, we collect data and understand how real structures are functioning so we can construct and design future structures much more realistically than we are now."
With bridges that are 30 or 40 years old, he says, there is no way to tell if the steel that has been used in the girders is the same material that should continue to be used for future construction. "We haven't been monitoring them, so we don't know how much life they have in them."
He likens the need for sensors and warning signals in civil structures to the health of the human body. "Nature has made sure our bodies have sensors in them," he says. "If we are ill, our temperature goes up. If you're running too fast or have a heart problem, your blood pressure goes up.
"If you don't monitor, anything can happen to you. But if you are continuously or periodically being monitored, then you can make very intelligent decisions ... I'm surprised we human beings have not done the same thing with our costly civil infrastructure."
The Golden Boy statue atop the Manitoba legislative building was the first heritage structure to receive SHM components. In 2002, sensors were installed in the statue to monitor the structural 'heartbeat', and stresses caused by ice or windstorms. The resulting data has been available to engineers and the public alike on the ISIS website (www.isiscanada.com).
Since the first project, Mufti says SHM technology has been installed in around 100 structures across Canada, of which ISIS is monitoring two dozen.
Garth Fallis, vice-president of construction technologies at Vector Construction Group in Winnipeg, says his company has been involved with SHM from the technology's beginning.
Since making in-kind contributions when the technology was in the research stages, Vector has completed four SHM projects so far: One in Hamilton, one on the Alaska Highway near the Yukon/ British Columbia border and two in Winnipeg.
|Vector Construction Group vice-president Garth Fallis says his company has been involved with SHM from the start.|
Fallis says the technology can be used on existing or new structures. Some sensors can be surface mounted, or embedded right inside concrete. He adds that costs vary depending on the project, but can range from $2,000 to $200,000.
Even though Mufti says that may only be around five per cent of a project's total cost, Fallis says the trick is finding owners prepared to spend money upfront, and understand that by monitoring their structures, they can save money down the road. "They can delay maintenance costs. (They'll) know what the structure is doing."
Although Winnipeg and Canada have been rapidly adopting SHM technology, Mufti has his sights set much further.
He founded and is president of the International Society for Structural Health Monitoring of Intelligent Infrastructure (ISHMII), a non-profit organization to promote SHM and its applications. "I am taking the lead role in making people aware of these technologies and to show to them the benefits and what is in the future," he adds.
Internationally, some developed countries are monitoring long-span bridges or buildings in earthquake zones, but Mufti says there are many more applications for the technology - including the levees in New Orleans. "Had they been monitoring, they would have known exactly whether they would survive the onslaught of (hurricane) Katrina."
Mufti adds that SHM is not the only development in the field of civil engineering.
"We are starting to expand our envelope of design and construction by using very new advanced materials such as fibre-infused polymers (or fibre-reinforced polymers), which aircraft people have been using for about 50 years. But in civil engineering, we are starting to use them now."
In order to reach a modern way of building sustainable infrastructure, Mufti says the profession has to develop a new discipline - something the University of Manitoba terms "civionics" - which is a combination of civil infrastructure with electrical photonic-sensing systems.
"Hopefully once we develop and mature this subject, our infrastructures of the future will be both innovative and sustainable," he says.
Winnipeg, he notes, is the perfect testing ground for new techniques. The city's climate, which changes from very hot to very cold, is a challenge for infrastructure design and construction. But through research, engineers can test myriad methods and be confident in their results.
"The University of Manitoba has a very visionary administration, which sees that supporting networks or centres of excellence like ISIS is a worthwhile thing to do," says Mufti.
"Because of the research that was going on at ISIS in Manitoba and elsewhere in Canada, and because of the confidence, we have said 'OK - now we'll go to new materials and new monitoring techniques and we will build even such a huge project (as the nearly $800-million Manitoba Floodway expansion) with new innovations and new technologies.' " And now that the enhancements have started, they're catching on. "There are 15 universities across Canada involved in this thing (civionics and/or SHM development), so what is happening is that all of these universities are really in orchestra, playing the same music together," says Mufti.
"This has been very influential in making people change their way of thinking. It again shows the Canadian way of collaborating and co-operating through networks of centres of excellence has been very advantageous to Canadian society."
(Nicole Strandlund can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)