This post was contributed by Fernando Moreu, P.E., a Research Assistant and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
During the summer, I had the privilege of being the only non-Chinese attendee at a meeting in which the Chinese Ministry of Transportation gave final approval to a first-of-its-kind national design code for Structural Health Monitoring (SHM) systems for large-span highway bridges. The code was the product of two years of detailed discussion and revisions, and in mid-September the first edition of the code was sent out for printing and general distribution.
My opportunity came as I study Chinese under a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) from the U.S. Department of Education. That fellowship supports my last year as a Ph.D. student in the Smart Structures Technology Laboratory (SSTL) in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
My presence at the June 24 meeting was also special because I was able to get a first-hand view into the future of safety and management of infrastructure. This view matched closely with the ASCE’s Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025, which foresees civil engineers of the future “relying on and leveraging real-time access to living databases, sensors, diagnostic tools and other advanced technologies to ensure informed decisions are made.” (Interestingly, Vision 2025 is also available in Chinese on the ASCE website.)
Just this summer I heard at a conference that it has been close to two decades during which it seemed that SHM had failed to deliver the “Holy Grail” of providing society with safer infrastructure. It’s a step forward now that our Chinese colleagues have provided the world with an example of how to regulate new SHM systems from the very beginning and deliver cyber-enabled bridges.
At the Beijing meeting of about 30 bridge engineering experts and government officials, I heard that quality control and quality assurance of constructed infrastructure will be the challenge for the Chinese authorities in the coming decades. The new code specifies that the SHM systems need to be designed simultaneously with the design of the bridge itself.
The SHM code outlines how sensors need to be durable, replaceable, maintainable and with life expectations of up to 20 years if they are embedded, or between 3 to 5 years if they are on the surface. Challenges involving data management (big data) were seen as an area needing support and development for effective use of the new code. Future editions of the code will need to be reviewed to include new results from ongoing SHM research being carried out across the world.
One concern that surfaced in the discussions was the application of new technologies in the context of bridge management and how those would apply to decision-making from the owner standpoint.
Professors Jinping Ou and Hui Li from the School of Civil Engineering at the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) led the group of experts working in the elaboration and revision of the SHM code. Both professors Ou and Li are in charge of the Center of Structural Monitoring and Control of HIT and are international leaders in the monitoring and control of large civil infrastructure. Various industrial firms and bridge management companies completed the list of collaborators. The group met for the final approval at the headquarters of the China Communications Construction Company. The first edition of the code is currently being printed by the Ministry of Transportation and will soon be officially distributed to various institutions and agencies in China.
Professor Ou concluded at the end of the Beijing meeting, “This is a great day for the safety and control of the Chinese infrastructure. There is a lot to be done in research and engineering, but we are moving in the right direction.”
During the fall semester, I am studying the new SHM Chinese code as part of my FLAS experience, which will provide me with a unique opportunity to learn more about Chinese engineering, society, and language. This study will also prepare me to suggest how the lessons learned in China by Professor Ou and his team can be shared in the future with agencies and professional societies in other countries, and in particular the U.S. and ASCE, while we prepare the foundation to write our own code.