MU scientists develop user-friendly app to monitor road conditions

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COLUMBIA - Two MU researchers, Dr. Amir Alavi and Dr. Bill Buttlar, are part of a team of scientists from different universities who developed "Roughness Capture," an app to evaluate the condition of roads and bridges. 

Alavi said the app satisfies the need for accurate, scalable and cost-effective technology to monitor the condition of civil infrastructure.

He said the app is also an example of "human-centered" technology.

"For many of these high tech monitoring technologies we really need expert people, we need engineers," Alavi said. "I can ask many of my friends to take my smartphone, use the app that we developed and use it for road monitoring."

Alavi said smartphones are designed in a way that allows scientists to use them for different experiments. 

"Our smartphones are equipped with a number of sensors: accelerometer, camera, microphone, barometer and too many other sensors," he said. "For this type of research, for road and also bridge monitoring, we just rely on accelerometer at this phase." 

From the information the accelerometer collects, researchers are able to obtain information about the conditions of the road. 

"You can use some mechanical models to determine some roughness indexes, which is used in engineering," Alavi said.

To verify the accuracy of the information produced by the app, Alavi said the app went through a calibration process. Researchers compared the data from the app to information they already had on the condition of some sections of I-70.

Alavi said the app has an accuracy of between 85 and 90 percent, when compared to another piece of equipment used by engineers that costs one million dollars. 

"We usually compare this with laser profilers," he said. "What we offer is that we will have 10 percent error but, on the other side, this is a potentially cost-free device." 

MoDOT funded a study to determine whether "Roughness Capture" could be used to assess the condition of airport runways and taxiways. 

Andrew Hanks, MoDOT's aviation program's manager, said the app could help assess some but not all of the FAA requirements. 

"Those requirements include a visual analysis," he said. "From my understanding of this technology developed by MU, it's mainly measuring the smoothness of the pavement, but often times that does correlate to the surface condition."

However, Hanks said the app could help with the evaluation of the condition of paved runways and taxiways in 30 state-funded airports in Missouri. 

"Because there're so limited funds for the evaluation of this pavements on a repeating basis, the use of the cell phone technology could provide a tool in the future for the local airports to evaluate their own payments, at low cost and easily."

Alavi said the developers of the app put thought into guaranteeing the security of the app for users. 

"Without their permission you cannot use the information," he said. "The only thing that we are getting from the smartphone is just the acceleration data that is recorded by our app."

Researchers started the "Roughness Capture" project in 2014. Alavi said the use of smartphone technology for civil infrastructure monitoring "is still in its infancy."

"I think within five years we will see a breakthrough in the employment of smartphone technology for civil infrastructure monitoring," he said.