5G Proves Its Value As a Disaster Prevention Platform

Mobile-enabled sensors used for monitoring structural health

I’m always on the lookout for new and innovative uses for 5G, particularly ones mixing its varied characteristics with other emerging technologies — even more so if they deliver societal benefits. One that caught my attention recently is a project in Italy with the potential for widespread application; a system for the structural health monitoring of buildings through a network of 5G-enabled sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones with cameras.

To give some background: the city of L’Aquila and Amatrice in Italy were hit by severe earthquakes in 2009, incurring a tragic loss of life when several historic buildings and residences were damaged. Several regions in Italy are seismic zones, so monitoring buildings for signs of potential structural weakness is vital to prevent or reduce damage to buildings, provide early warning of any possible collapse and of course protect people during earthquakes and other natural disasters.

During the reconstruction of the L’Aquila region, the University of L’Aquila joined forces with Chinese network equipment and solutions supplier ZTE, working with its 5G Innovation and Research Center to develop a structural health monitoring system. The system is based on ZTE’s 5G high-capacity network platform and is delivered over the 5G network of Italian operator WindTre, the joint venture between VimpelCom’s Wind Telecom and CK Hutchison’s Three Italy.

The solution uses mathematical modelling to identify the most suitable locations in a building for deploying sensors to monitor its structural integrity. Data captured by these sensors is transmitted over the 5G network and analysed to assess the building’s condition. Based on the results, the system can alert the designated superintendent of the building and its occupants, and evasive actions can be taken. For instance, electricity, gas and water supplies to a building can be deactivated, avoiding cascade consequences from a potential seismic event.

More traditional methods of assessing building damage centre on periodic inspections and typically expensive structural surveys. But damage or weakness in a structure is often undetectable by such methods — or isn’t detectable in time. Real-time monitoring can provide a consistent view of several environmental metrics that could affect the safety of a building.

ZTE has built the platform to meet several major requirements:

  • Sensors to detect structural health of buildings in real time, transmitting regular data updates. These could include accelerometers that measure vibration and noise stress; inclinometers, measuring angles of slope, elevation and subsidence; temperature and humidity meters for monitoring climatic changes; and GPS meters for land measuring. These are all wirelessly enabled in the monitoring platform.
  • Video recording and analytics from unmanned aerial vehicles carrying out site inspection — particularly useful for hard-to-reach areas of a building like the roof. This enables visual monitoring to be carried out remotely, itself a safety advantage.
  • A stable and low-latency mobile network. The latency and capacity 5G offers allows it to deliver applications such as drone-based video footage. Network density is also important, to ensure there are no coverage dead spots in a monitored building.
  • An intelligent platform for monitoring data, analysing results and delivering real-time diagnostics, accurately identifying abnormal conditions and allowing for timely intervention and precautionary actions.

Although structural health monitoring solutions aren’t a new concept, many are fragmented parts of a wider solution instead of a unified system. What’s attractive about the ZTE system is that it’s highly integrated, combining 5G networking with sensor-based data capture, processing and analytics capabilities to deliver an end-to-end platform. The sensor and algorithm model is optimized, modelling the shock-wave impact of different levels of seismic activity and allow for disaster scenario-planning. The structural health system is designed to be highly adaptable, giving it numerous possible applications. Once installed, benefits include:

  • Real-time monitoring of buildings, bridges and other structures can give more accurate and timely measurements of fault tolerance, providing earlier warnings of safety risks created by changes in atmosphere, weather, local environment and seismic activity. Of course, the primary value is in ensuring buildings are safe, whether or not they’re inhabited or in frequent use; even if not, the vicinity of the building must be safe.
  • Monitoring the health of bridges is important for safety and holds economic value, prolonging their service life. Rapid damage assessment of bridges after an extreme event such as an earthquake is essential in recovery work.
  • Aside from emergency situations, the system can also help lower building maintenance costs. Early intervention and correction is often more cost-effective than later, more-invasive repairs. This also has value for older, historic buildings under preservation orders, as well as for municipal planning and other civil engineering projects — particularly those related to health and safety for on-site workers.

The development and sophistication of the ZTE platform is an important step in minimizing the impact of earthquakes and holds great potential for replication in other earthquake-prone areas. In addition to Italy, countries such as Nepal have already shown interest in the application. Hopefully, deployment of 5G-enabled structural health systems like this one can help to mitigate the worst effects of natural disasters in the future.