SmartBridge rail bridge

Railway bridge gets its ‘digital twin’

Image credit: Google

A bridge in London is being mapped onto a ‘digital twin’ fed with real-time data from an array of sensors to help engineers monitor its condition and head off problems.

The SmartBridge project is a research collaboration between Brunel University London, research and technology business TWI and the construction company James Fisher. They hope to develop predictive and risk-based tools for asset managers that could extend the life of bridges and other structures by decades.

The physical bridge in Watford carries London Underground’s Metropolitan line over the A4145 to Rickmansworth, and is being embedded with sensors to monitor safety, wear and tear. This data is fed via the cloud into algorithms that analyse the bridge’s structure and condition and map it in real time onto an exact virtual model, or digital twin.

“A working digital twin of a structure such as this is cutting-edge,” said Dr Miltiadis Kourmpetis at Brunel Innovation Centre. “The technology is still relatively new.”

The smart bridge will also help engineers head off potential problems before they strike by predicting how the real bridge will react to different weather conditions, amounts of traffic, ground vibrations and even if it’s hit in a collision.

SmartBridge is expected to produce detailed forecasts relating to health, condition, reliability and the remaining life of infrastructure. The level of detail and accuracy afforded by effective big data management will make it possible to improve safety and maximise the operational lifespan of the asset with enhanced, proactive maintenance programmes.

When the project was launched in 2017, Ash Parmar of London Underground commented: “We do not like surprises when structures are suddenly found to have major defects which may lead to failures, during inspections. A robust approach for using historic information and real time monitoring data to enable reliable prediction of deterioration and defect occurrence is welcomed.”

John Fisher will also be able to apply what it learns from the Watford smart bridge to the hundreds of other bridges it monitors across the UK transport network.

Backed by Innovate UK to the tune of £1.48m, the 26-month project has just reached its halfway stage. The goal is to develop a product the transport and energy supply industries can use to keep a real-time virtual check on the safety of their structures.

“A digital twin is an evolving model of the historical and present behaviour of a structure constantly striving to improve its performance. It is indeed something we believe our namesake pioneering engineer would have been proud of,” added Dr Kourmpetis.

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