Putting Sensors In City Buildings Could Make Their Walls Talk

Giving structure to a city's infrastructure

Trying to get a building to tell you how it’s feeling is, well, like talking to a brick wall. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Researchers with the GENESI project want to make it so walls can talk back, by creating various sensors to fit inside buildings, tunnels, and bridges. With the feedback collected from these sensors, inspectors will have a better understanding of how a city’s infrastructure is holding up

GENESI is an awkward acronym for “Green sEnsonr NEtworks for Structural monItoring.” Funded by the European Union, GENESI puts sensors into a city’s various structures to let them “communicate” their status. These sensors include “vibrating strain gauges, displacement meters, pressure sensors, temperature sensors, [and] soil moisture sensors.” To conserve power, they have energy harvesting capabilities, and engineers can periodically wake them up to get fresh readings from the sensors and check for any changes.

Tunnel Sensor With Wind Turbine

One of GENESI’s two pilot projects is a testbed in the tunnels of Rome’s underground rail system, where wire sensors that pick up strain from vibration were placed inside certain concrete segments. Data loggers record the data, transmitting the information to a wireless setup and relay system, which then sends it out via cell networks to a remote server. From there, presumably civil engineers have access to the data and can use it to inform future maintenance planning and repair schedules.

The sensing system is great, but powering sensors–even really efficient sensors–requires some form of electric charging or battery replacement. Renewable energy is tricky in tunnels, since the sun’s rays don’t reach that far. But each GENESI node and sensor includes a miniature wind turbine that harvests energy from passing trains. For all other sensors, whether tucked away in tunnel walls or nestled in dark unlit crevices under bridges, replacing batteries isn’t always the easiest task for humans, so that might be a future job for drones.

If systems like GENESI become widespread, they could drastically improve city infrastructures, or at least infrastructure maintenance stateside. If not, or at least if they don’t make it to the U.S., expect to see more yelling at brick walls, like John Oliver does below:

Kelsey D. Atherton

Kelsey D. Athertonis a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work on drones, lethal AI, and nuclear weapons has appeared in Slate, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.