Smart Timber Monitor set to save industry millions

Researchers at the University of Melbourne are reporting the success of a remote monitoring device that can accurately measure decay and insect infestations in construction timber over vast distances - and could save Australia’s building and electrical distribution industries, millions of dollars.

The wireless device, which will eventually fit into the palm of a hand, can be attached to timber beams, joists or power poles, where it monitors at predetermined intervals their structural integrity, moisture content, and - through an ingenious ’listening device’ - the movement of termites and other wood-boring insects.

The device is the brainchild of Berhan Ahmed, a senior research fellow at the University’s Department of Forest and Ecosystem Science and a 2009 Victorian of the Year, who has been developing the technology over the past four years with distinguished radar technology expert, Associate Professor Peter Farrell and senior engineering lecturer, Graham Brodie.

Ahmed has spent more than 20 years studying environmental impacts on hardwoods and softwoods in some of Australia’s harshest natural terrains. Supported by IT technician Deepan Babu Thanigasalam and PhD student Ahmed El-Hadad, he recently completed successful field trials with hundreds of sensors reporting decay and insect damage on 40 power poles and 87 miniature model houses at a test site near Gove in Arnhem Land - "one of the most challenging building environments in Australia".

The researchers believe their system, which delivers its findings in real-time through a dedicated online program, will provide significant savings in building inspections, transport and labour costs - and, ultimately, in the amount of timber consumed by the construction and electrical industries.

"We have strong evidence that thousands of power poles are pulled down and discarded when they could still have several years of valuable service left in them," says Ahmed. "By monitoring the health of the timber according to appropriate parameters for their specific environments, we can determine precisely when they will reach the end of their safe and useful service life."

In addition to Australia’s 3.5 million wooden power poles, the device has major implications for home builders and owners, whose life savings can be tied up in a property that may literally be disintegrating around them.

"Thanks to advances in online , our monitor can deliver its findings remotely in real time to a server which will send a warning directly to the mobile phone of a home owner, a building inspector, or an electrical company, identifying exactly where a problem is emerging," says Ahmed.

This research also has implications for domestic markets. "If these remote sensors can reproduce the same levels of accuracy and reliability in urban settings as they have in simulated conditions, there’s no doubt they hold enormous promise for the building inspection trade," says Archicentre’s State Manager for Victoria, David Hallett. Archicentre is committed to supporting this kind of research to ensure our inspectors can continue to utilise the most advanced technology in their structural monitoring work."

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