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Smart Sensing Systems Applied to Geotechnical Structures


Geotechnical structures such as foundations, retaining walls, dams, levees, slopes, trenchless construction, tunnels, and excavation support are generally designed with high assumed factors of safety due to risk assessment and due to uncertainty associated with the design inputs obtained during site characterization. Failures associated with geotechnical structures are often spectacular, potentially dangerous, and almost always expensive. Designers and owners are becoming aware of the benefits of geotechnical instrumentation to mitigate risk in the design, construction and operation of geotechnical projects. In some sectors, such as dam safety, the state of practice is highly developed to protect public health and reduce operational risks. In general however, there is very little consensus as to what constitutes good professional practice when it comes to appropriate instrumentation. Some portions of the design and operations community are forging ahead with instrumentation programs, while other sectors are not taking advantage of the opportunity to optimize resources provided by successful instrumentation deployment. The purpose of this research effort is to review and document the state of the art in geotechnical sensing and monitoring techniques and to establish guidelines for practitioners in developing monitoring and warning systems to improve effectiveness, establish a dataset for improved future designs, and reduce life safety risks.


The objective of this research will be to produce a guidebook that provides recommendations on the types of instruments readily available for use in geotechnical structures. The guidebook will also suggest possible trigger mechanisms and methodologies that would make the measurements actionable by engineers such that an early warning system might be provided to the public as needed.


The TRB committees Soil and Rock Instrumentation (AFS20) and Engineering Behavior of Unsaturated Soils (AFP60), who are drawn from many sectors of the transportation community, have identified this problem as a priority for those responsible for constructing and maintaining transportation infrastructure.

The potential payoff for improved instrumentation deployment is significant. Early warning systems in other sectors have demonstrated the utility of this technology. Monitoring systems can reduce risk, prevent poor design and poor land-use decisions, enhance infrastructure level-of-service by facilitating construction in areas susceptible to failures, and provide early warning for mitigation prior to failure (so extending service life and reducing life-cycle costs).

Related Research:

An extensive body of literature is available on this subject, but it is not well-organized. It is likely that some technology gaps exist, which will need to be filled by new information produced by the project team responsible for the successful completion of this project.


At a minimum, the guidebook would contain descriptions and recommendations related to the following:

  1. Sensors appropriate for specific project types that may include, but are not limited to, the following general sensors:

a. Traditional performance-related measurement of movement, stress, etc.

b. Remote sensing utilizing satellite, LIDAR, etc.

c. Soil physics measurements such as suction, moisture, temperature, etc.

d. Weather measurements such as precipitation, temperature, humidity, etc.

  1. Additional sensor system components and considerations such as:

a. Automated real-time data acquisition

b. Wireless and cabled communication

c. Power supply resilience

d. Security of installed instrumentation and transmitted data

e. Installation effort and cost

  1. Data analyses and presentation to consider:

a. Making the data actionable

b. Providing early warning thresholds

c. Communicating actionable information to stakeholders


Departments of transportation and other infrastructure owners are beginning to aggregate their data and consider it holistically. Geotechnical monitoring data can provide valuable information in making operational and planning decisions. This research project will establish a baseline for developing, integrating, and operating the geotechnical asset management portion of these systems.


Departments of transportation and other infrastructure owners

Sponsoring Committee:AKG60, Geotechnical Instrumentation and Modeling
Research Period:Longer than 36 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:John Siekmeier, P.E., Research Engineer, Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Materials and Road Research, 1400 Gervais Ave., Maplewood, MN 55109 (651) 366-5417 john.siekmeier@state.mn.us
Date Posted:04/10/2014
Date Modified:01/29/2019
Index Terms:Geotechnical engineering, Foundations, Retaining walls, Dams, Levees, Trenchless technology, Embankments, Slopes, Excavation and tunneling, Risk assessment, Remote sensing,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Bridges and other structures

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