North­eastern Uni­ver­sity has been awarded a $9 mil­lion fed­eral research grant to develop new multi-​​sensor tech­nology sys­tems for cars and trucks that will allow for real-​​time assess­ment of road and bridge infra­struc­ture across the country. North­eastern will lead the five-​​year VOTERS (Ver­sa­tile Onboard Traffic Embedded Roaming Sen­sors) project along with a range of gov­ern­ment, industry, and aca­d­emic partners.

This multi-​​million dollar fed­eral grant is an invest­ment in one of Northeastern’s greatest strengths: the dis­covery and devel­op­ment of knowl­edge that ben­e­fits society,” said North­eastern Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun. “We are pleased to take the lead on this impor­tant project, which will do a great deal toward improving our nation’s infra­struc­ture and advancing public safety.”

The need to restore and main­tain urban infra­struc­ture is iden­ti­fied by the National Academy of Engi­neering as an engi­neering Grand Chal­lenge for the 21st cen­tury. The well pub­li­cized Amer­ican Society of Civil Engi­neering (ASCE) 2005 Report Card gave the nation’s infra­struc­ture a grade of D, esti­mating that a $1.6 tril­lion invest­ment was required to address basic needed repairs.

Ming Wang, Ph.D., and Sara Wadia-​​Fascetti, Ph.D., both pro­fes­sors of civil engi­neering at North­eastern, will co-​​direct the project. The team, assem­bled from uni­ver­sity, industry and gov­ern­ment part­ners, will equip vehi­cles, such as city buses, with inno­v­a­tive multi-​​sensor tech­nology sys­tems that mon­itor sur­face con­di­tions while the vehicle is in motion. The sen­sors will uti­lize acoustics and radar to mon­itor the roads and bridges under real dri­ving con­di­tions, looking for pot­holes and cracks in the con­crete and other abnor­mal­i­ties that are in need of repair.

This new tech­nology will elim­i­nate the need for cur­rent inspec­tion methods that involve haz­ardous and congestion-​​prone highway work zones. The com­mer­cial­iza­tion of sev­eral new inven­tions is envi­sioned as the end-​​product of funding.

The goal of this project is to create a cost-​​effective and safe way to mon­itor our civil infra­struc­ture under normal dri­ving con­di­tions,” said Dr. Wang, prin­cipal inves­ti­gator on the project. “This sensing tech­nology will create a way to detect prob­lems, both on the sur­face and sub­sur­face, so that prob­lems can be fixed more efficiently.”

Com­puters installed in the vehi­cles will con­trol the sen­sors and a GPS system will pin­point the col­lected data to very pre­cise loca­tions. Con­stant streams of data will be processed and reported back to base sta­tions using a cel­lular phone system, which will then be ana­lyzed so that timely repairs can be made in vul­ner­able areas.

New tech­nolo­gies com­bining civil, elec­trical and com­puter engi­neer­ings are essen­tial to solve the crisis in the nation’s infra­struc­ture. Northeastern’s inno­v­a­tive research lead­er­ship through Pro­fes­sors Wang, Wadia-​​Fascetti, and their col­leagues will serve the nation well,” said David Luzzi, Dean of Northeastern’s Col­lege of Engineering.

North­eastern will col­lab­o­rate with var­ious gov­ern­ment, aca­d­emic and industry part­ners on this project, including the Mass­a­chu­setts Highway Depart­ment, Ana­logic Cor­po­ra­tion, Infra­sense Inc., and researchers at Boston Uni­ver­sity, Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts at Lowell and Uni­ver­sity of Ver­mont, in addi­tion to the pri­mary Joint Ven­ture partners.

VOTERS is part of the NIST’s Tech­nology Inno­va­tion Pro­gram, which was recently estab­lished to sup­port inno­v­a­tive and high-​​risk, high-​​reward research in areas with a crit­ical need.