The Best Tool for Tracking Crumbling Infrastructure is in Orbit

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

The sad state of America’s bridges is a perennial topic amongst engineers and a regular talking point for politicians, all of whom have a plan to fix them. An interesting post from the European Space Agency shows how one of the best tools for repair is actually hanging out in Low Earth Orbit.

A project by the University of Nottingham and the ESA shows satellites might be the most valuable tool in the never-ending quest to keep ageing infrastructure safe for humans. The program installed several satellite navigation sensors atop a bridge in Scotland, which provided instantaneous feedback about how the bridge was moving—down to the specificity of a single centimetre.

The Best Tool for Tracking Our Crumbling Infrastructure Is In Orbit

Combined with photos taken from satellites, they were able to figure out how much the soil conditions around the bridge were changing, and assess just how safe it was for drivers.

A few sensors could be enough to tell a central HQ whether to evacuate commuters during a storm, for example, or as tonnes of new traffic stress a bridge to the breaking point—satellites could make it way faster and more precise to set up “reliable alarm thresholds for issuing the right alerts at the right time,” as one bridgemaster tells the ESA.

The Best Tool for Tracking Our Crumbling Infrastructure Is In Orbit

It’s just the latest project to use readily available satellite data to track the surface of the Earth over time—often using machine learning to predict or detect changes long before humans could.

Last month we learned of an amazing project to detect where illegal deforestation is happening because of logging. The satellite company Orbital Insight isn’t just looking at satellite photos and tracking where trees are being cut down. They’re using machine learning to predict where deforestation is happening before it actually does, looking at small changes in the environment like new logging roads, says Wired’s Klint Finley, using the same basic tools “that companies like Google and Facebook are using for image recognition and other tasks.”

The Best Tool for Tracking Our Crumbling Infrastructure Is In Orbit

Under-construction railway bridge across the Chenab river in Kauri in Reasi district, Jammu and Kashmir state, India. AP Photo/Channi Anand.

The ESA is looking for new ways to use its existing satellites, and the program with Nottingham isn’t a one-off. It’s part of a project called Transportation Information Management that’s going to test how well satellite imagery and ground sensors can track the stability and health of all kinds of transit infrastructure in and around London.

If it’s successful, it could mean that the same program could be used all over the world—not only keeping track of ageing bridges and roads in cities, but more at-risk structures in rural or out-of-the-way locations where engineers and other experts may not visit as often.

Oddly enough, the infrastructure of Earth may owe a lot to the infrastructure of space.

Bonner Bridge near Nags Head, N.C. AP Photo/Gerry Broome.