A new prototype sensor that provides an early warning signal if a bridge is at risk of scour – the number one cause of bridge collapse globally – has been developed by a researcher at Queen’s University Belfast.
Dr Myra Lydon has been working on the sensor since 2021 to tackle the problem of scour – the erosion of riverbeds and banks, which can cause major bridge structural failure problems.
An initial prototype sensor has been developed in partnership with fiber optic sensor developer Somni Solutions and testing has now been completed. Dr Lydon hopes that the sensor will be in place on a Northern Ireland bridge this summer and after further research there will be a wider roll out of the technology.
The project has been funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAA) and Invest NI has provided additional funding for market exploration.
Dr Lydon said that in 2019 it was estimated that within the UK an average of 8.2 million passenger journeys are lost annually due to the risk of bridge scour, with an associated economic cost of £60 million.
“In 2009, we witnessed catastrophic bridge failure in Malahide, Co Dublin where scour failure occurred suddenly. With scour, there is often no prior visible sign of distress to structure. In Malahide, the bridge was inspected just weeks prior to its collapse and had passed inspection but then failed seconds after a full passenger train crossed. Thankfully it narrowly avoided the catastrophe,” explained Dr Lydon.
“It is vital that we protect our bridges and can detect scour before incidents like this take place. The sensor that we have developed detects changes in the riverbed prior to the damage occurring on the bridge. This can provide an early warning, which undoubtedly is safer and helps to prevent widespread bridge failures when we are faced with extreme climate events, such as flooding,” she added.
With initial laboratory and field trials completed, Dr Lydon is now working with Kris Campbell, head from the Highway Structures Unit in the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure, to identify a suitable bridge test site. The sensor will be installed along with other structural health monitoring equipment to ensure the safety of aging bridges.