If there’s one thing that’s not particularly beneficial to a rebounding economy, it’s unplanned government spending. In many cases, cash outflows to address unanticipated damage or structural collapse of important systems and critical infrastructure can set a city or municipality back years in terms of spending.

In particular, sinkholes, a natural occurring geological phenomena, are notorious for causing budgetary overruns. In fact, local governments across the United States shell out upwards of $300 million annually to not only fill them in, but also to repair and replace damaged subterranean systems and equipment.

Though there’s still a lack of consensus as to why sinkholes occur, many believe that the causes are correlated to human activity (while some claim pumping water out of underground aquifers are to blame, others point to the corrosive effects of acid rain on soluble minerals). Up to now, sinkholes have been catching everyone unawares, but as we continue to learn more about what causes them, it stands to reason that we just might possess the technology to address a sinkhole before it occurs.

Can an Internet of Things (IoT) Enabled Device Monitor Ground Conditions?

Truth be told, this isn’t a farfetched idea. We already use this kind of technology to great degree of success to perform underground water main condition assessments and monitoring. Consequently, using Wi-Fi and radio-enabled sensors have drastically helped to reduce the cost and disruption of service associated with a water main rupture. Surely then a device capable of monitoring ground density and soil conditions can be developed to provide constant monitoring in areas that are known to be prone to sinkholes?

Believe it or not, even NASA has taken a stab at providing an early warning to the appearance of sinkholes, though their efforts included airliners specially equipped with sophisticated radar technology that monitored ground shifts from 40,000 feet. Though their system worked to varying degrees of success, the cost to monitor and extrapolate the data collected in this way is arguably much too prohibitive to make widespread implementation feasible. Additionally, this type of monitoring wouldn’t actually provide continuous, real time information the way a locally-based IoT connected device would.

How Has Water System Monitoring Changed and Could it Work for Sink Holes?

There was a time when leak detection was perhaps more of an art than a science. These days however, the opposite is definitely true thanks to intelligent technologies that can pinpoint, to a high level of accuracy, the location of the system failure. Though there are many different proprietary devices available, those that function as part of a wider array can perhaps more easily be used in the detection of sinkholes.

Some products can be attached to external components (like fire hydrants) where they can more easily be installed, serviced, and replaced, if necessary. External connection also ensures a stronger signal. The sensor is capable of producing an acoustic signal (a “ping”, if you will) and contains analysis software to analyze the condition of the underground system along with network hardware that allows each sensor to communicate with a centralized hub.

Since sinkholes occur when the stability or density of underlying material is compromised, it stands to reason that internally and externally mounted sensors (connected to a larger, underground network) could effectively monitor the permeability and integrity of the material surrounding critical infrastructure.

To be fair, such a system might do little to prevent a sinkhole event, but it could conceivably warn authorities that a particular area might experience a sink hole within a certain window of time, which could, in theory reduce the associated damage cost. Taking this idea one step further, authorities to divert affected potentially affected resources or take proactive action to excavate the area before the collapse occurred.

The IoT possesses many promising applications, many of which are designed to save time, and money. And while it’s safe to say that the thoughts of many don’t often turn to how the IoT can impact the finances of local government, you can’t argue that the opportunities afforded by this technology are very real.


Published by Steffen Ploeger