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Cold Circuits versus the Naked Eye

Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - Jeff Schuyler

Musings on Automated Monitoring in the Digital Age

by Richard E. Goodman

I was introduced to the practice of "automated monitoring" in the Civil/Structural profession where we connected sensors that measured displacement, tilt, strain or water level to computers to monitor physical processes - primarily for advanced warning purposes.  For example we monitored slopes and excavations for failure, bridges and buildings during construction and dams for post earthquake displacement.  Back when we started we were just learning about collecting digital measurements and finding timely ways to turn them into usable information.  The Internet was in it's infancy before broadband and mobile appliances.  At that time you could hear an interesting argument going on in publications and at conferences between those of us in the new school who were excited by what we saw in the digital signature of an analog instrument, and the old school who were trained to 'observe' with the physical world with the naked eye. The Master of the school of observation was a man by the name of Karl Terzaghi.  I call him a Master because he was a great, great scientist and engineer who made a huge mark on the practice of civil engineering and geology (see for example Karl Terzaghi: The Engineer as Artist

by Richard E. Goodman ). He was a renaissance man and natural observer - one who tried to see the physical world without prejudice and used his technical expertise and human understanding - intuition perhaps - to solve many engineering problems.  His teachings and books informed an entire generation of geotechnical engineers, and I came along at the beginning of the digital age and was taught by his pupils.  One foot in flesh-and-blood engineering and one foot in the digital age.

Many engineers back then were concerned that automated monitoring results in a “black box” approach where visual examination and experience are replaced by cold circuits and relays to provide advance warning of potential problems.  I suppose this could happen.  At a minimum we would have to acknowledge that communication technologies are not infallible and waiting for an alarm transmitted through some wires and not going out and using active observational techniques would be foolish.  But Terzaghi and his students advocated one to go out and look for problems.  He thought that was the best way to find issues before they became big problems.  

Another point of view argued at that time was that data obtained from continuous monitoring can provide the engineer with new information about the behavior of the structure being monitored that is not apparent to the naked eye. This added perspective can actually increase the engineer’s knowledge base, giving them a deeper understanding of structural response. Furthermore, the utilization of real-time monitoring systems in combination with advanced analysis tools enables designers to take economic advantage of these new insights without sacrificing construction safety.

Are cold circuits better than flesh-and-blood?  Ironically in a few short years we've probably travelled to the other end of the spectrum.  Walking across a busy street with our eyes glued to our progress on a digital map?  Hopefully not that bad - although I think I've seen it.  Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea to study the teachings of people like Terzaghi and Ralph Peck even in non-engineering fields to remind ourselves of what the naked senses are and how they have been applied to accomplish some incredible things.  Automated monitoring has definite benefits to the welfare of our society and environment.  But we should get outside and feel our environment at the same time.


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