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A Prescription for Healthier, Longer-Lived Levees and Dams

December 17, 2009

A Prescription for Healthier, Longer-Lived Levees and Dams

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have secured a $7 million NIST TIP grant to develop a comprehensive system for monitoring and assessing the condition of aging levees and dams. The new system, which uses satellite-based radar, small ground sensors, and GPS to collect continuous, real-time data, could help to significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic levee failures.

Researchers launch $7 million project to develop new system for assessing the condition of flood-control infrastructure

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are leading a $7 million project to develop a new comprehensive system for monitoring and assessing the condition of aging levees and dams.

The four-year project, which includes $3.5 million in funding from a U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Technology Innovation Program grant, aims to create an integrated suite of technologies and methods for ensuring the reliability and safety of flood-control infrastructure. Rensselaer will partner with Geocomp Corp. on this new framework, which incorporates satellite-based radar with GPS and locally installed sensors. Such a system could help to significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic events akin to the 2005 New Orleans levee failure during Hurricane Katrina.

“The unique ability of Rensselaer faculty to bring together a large-scale, integrated approach to address the problem of catastrophic flood control will help bring safety and security to millions of people in the future,” said Rensselaer Provost Robert Palazzo.

“The challenges of monitoring and assessing large infrastructure systems in varying stages of deterioration are among the most pressing we face as a nation,” said David Rosowsky, dean of engineering at Rensselaer.   

“Currently, most infrastructure assessments are based on infrequent visual inspections of the surface condition of levees and dams, which in reality reveal very little about the internal condition and performance of these structures. It’s like a medical doctor conducting an annual checkup based solely on the external appearance of a patient,” said Mourad Zeghal, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer, who is leading the project.

“Our project sets out to develop a new, more effective means to continuously monitor and analyze, in real time, the internal and external health of levees and dams. The proposed framework is cost-effective, robust, minimally invasive, and should boost the safety and reliability of our national flood-control infrastructure,” he said.

The project’s capstone experiment includes participating in a $5 million test by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that involves intentionally breaching, or loading until failure, a full-scale levee.           

Co-investigators on the project are Tarek Abdoun, the Iovino ’73 Career Development Professor in Civil Engineering at Rensselaer and acting head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Birsen Yazici, associate professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer. Abdoun led Rensselaer’s physical modeling research team that clarified the failure mechanisms of some of the New Orleans levees during Hurricane Katrina, providing critical feedback to the corresponding numerical analyses. Yazici is leading an $800,000 U.S. Air Force research project to create a new laboratory for developing and testing next-generation radar systems.

Among the long-term monitoring techniques proposed for the levee assessment framework is InSAR, or satellite-based interferometric synthetic aperture radar measurements. InSAR will capture and analyze high-resolution satellite images of levees and dams, and measure how far these structures have shifted or sunk due to environmental changes such as rain, floods, tremors, or even aging. InSAR measurements are accurate down to the millimeter scale.

The proposed framework also calls for sensor arrays to be installed into the ground beneath and around levees and dams. These SAPP (shape-acceleration-pore pressure) arrays are inexpensive and will help to accurately measure soil deformation, vibration, and pore pressure at critical points of a flood-control system. To bridge the gap between InSAR satellite data and below-ground SAPP measurements, the researchers will augment the framework with a network of high-resolution GPS sensors to track the physical movement of structures.

Data collected from the three systems will be integrated into an automated “smart network” that provides, for the first time, a long-term continuous assessment of the health of levee systems from both underground and aerial perspectives, Zeghal said. In case of a levee failure, data collected by the proposed automated monitoring system will be used to organize a quick emergency response to repair levees and minimize the extent of flooding.

Collected data will also be paired with computational simulation techniques to build accurate, predictive models of how different levees should react to different environmental conditions. Such models will be invaluable for developing plans to mitigate levee damage and respond to disasters, Zeghal said. The new framework will also provide quantitative assessments that will better allow federal and local governments to prioritize where infrastructure repairs are most needed.

“The combination of modeling and measurements will provide significantly more accurate information about the health state of levees than measurements alone,” Abdoun said. “The successful development and implementation of this framework will have high reward, enabling better management of more reliable flood-control infrastructure.”

“Once complete, this technology could easily be adapted and applied to similar systems for monitoring the health of highways, roads, and coastal infrastructures,” Yazici said. “This framework may also be used to assist in assessing geohazards such as landslides and sinkholes.”

For additional information on levee and earthquake research conducted at Rensselaer, visit: For more information on Rensselaer’s contributions to national efforts in responding to Hurricane Katrina, visit:

Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161


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