On August 1, 2008, 13 people were killed when the Inter­state 35W bridge in Min­neapolis col­lapsed during rush hour. A year later, a building in Brooklyn, New York, crum­bled to the ground as fire­fighters arrived on the scene in response to a report of falling bricks.

Both inci­dents were sobering reminders that the nation’s aging infrastructure—bridges, roads, build­ings and more—needs closer mon­i­toring and intervention.

In fact, the neces­sity of restora­tion and main­te­nance of urban infra­struc­ture is one of the National Academy of Engineering’s “Grand Chal­lenges.” The Amer­ican Society of Civil Engineering’s 2009 Report Card gave the nation’s infra­struc­ture a grade of D.

At North­eastern, a group of experts, recently buoyed by a $9 mil­lion fed­eral grant to develop tech­nology to mon­itor the struc­tural con­di­tion of roads and bridges, is moving for­ward with inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research to develop better tools for mon­i­toring and assessment.

The Uni­ver­sity has become some­thing of a hub for infra­struc­ture experts, says Sara Wadia-​​Fascetti, codi­rector of the fed­er­ally funded Ver­sa­tile Onboard Traffic Embedded Roaming Sen­sors (VOTERS) project.

Infra­struc­tural research at North­eastern has evolved to the point that we have exper­tise across many dis­ci­plines,” Wadia-​​Fascetti said, noting that research and pro­grams in mechan­ical, elec­trical and civil engi­neering as well as in the social sci­ences are now con­nected to this research area.

In civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering, bridge infra­struc­ture expert Ming Wang, and Mehrdad Sasani, an expert in struc­ture col­lapse, are working on mon­i­toring projects that will increase safety in their respec­tive areas. Wang, who holds patents on sen­sors and sys­tems used world­wide on bridge mon­i­toring, received fed­eral funds this year to develop a road-​​and-​​bridge-​​monitoring system that attaches to vehicles.

As part of the five-​​year VOTERS project, he will work along­side Wadia-​​Fascetti to develop onboard multi-​​sensor tech­nology, equip­ping city buses with devices that would detect struc­tural flaws in real time.

Sasani, whose research focuses on devel­oping design guide­lines for new and existing struc­tures, hopes to work with Wang to develop wire­less sen­sors that would help pre­dict how man­made or nat­ural cat­a­stro­phes will cause a building to collapse.

Sasani noted that such tech­nology would help pre­dict how a building will fall in sit­u­a­tions such as that cre­ated by the 9/​11 attack on the World Trade Center towers.

Ulti­mately, the same sensor tech­nology could be used to sug­gest the safest way to bring down a struc­ture on pur­pose, said Wang.

While these and other researchers search for ways of safe­guarding infra­struc­ture, grad­uate stu­dents are learning to become leaders in the field of infra­struc­tural assess­ment through the Inte­grated Grad­uate Edu­ca­tion In Research Trainee­ship (IGERT) program.

The pro­gram, led by Wadia-​​Fascetti and Dion­isio Bernal, asso­ciate pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering, is another way the Uni­ver­sity is carving out a niche in this par­tic­ular area, she said. Noting that other IGERT co-​​principal inves­ti­ga­tors include Barry Blue­stone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Chris Bosso, asso­ciate dean, and Carey Rap­pa­port, pro­fessor of elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering, Wadia-​​Fascetti said infra­struc­ture issues cross many depart­ments at Northeastern.

Bernal is mon­i­toring the health of bridges, Rap­pa­port is looking at the sub­sur­faces, and Blue­stone and Bosso are expert in public policy issues related to infra­struc­ture, she said.

Because the public owns roads and bridges, Wadia-​​Fascetti said it is crit­ical to have policy experts on the team. “In order to make a dif­fer­ence, people like Barry and Chris can help nav­i­gate the polit­ical envi­ron­ment,” she said.

In a project last fall, Bosso’s stu­dents worked on assessing the eco­nomic, polit­ical and tech­nical fac­tors that played a role in the col­lapse of the I-​​35W bridge in Minneapolis.

The pol­i­tics of public bud­gets, public sector decision-​​making dynamics and eth­ical ques­tions all … present chal­lenges to engi­neers in the plan­ning, imple­menting, financing and main­te­nance of infra­struc­ture projects,” Bosso said.

To learn more about the Col­lege of Engi­neering at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, visit: http://​www​.coe​.neu​.edu/

To learn more about the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, visit: http://​www​.pol​i​cyschool​.neu​.edu/

This story was written by Susan Salk and Jason Kornwitz.