PH engineer creates solution to monitor building vibrations before, after quake

For Dr. Francis Uy of Mapua University, given the unpredictability of earthquakes, the best answer for disaster-readiness and resiliency lies in what science always offer to problems: data.

In the aftermath of the recent 6.1 magnitude earthquake, and the succeeding quakes in the past week, Uy noted the fact that work was suspended in the aftermath of the 6.1 magnitude earthquake and the succeeding ones last week, meaning there was still uncertainty and lack of information on the integrity of the buildings a day after an earthquake.

This uncertainty is a serious gap in post-disaster risk assessment of building administration.

“The standard Remote Visual Inspection (RVI) of buildings were done no doubt, but work was suspended in government and in schools the day after meant that building managers or developers were not sure of the structure’s integrity. They were not sure if the buildings are safe to be occupied,” Uy noted.

This “information gap” is what his invention, the Universal Structural Health Evaluation and Recording (USHER) system, aims to address.

The USHER system consists of an accelerometer, and a Web portal for 24/7 monitoring of the structure. The device logs in building vibrations before and after a quake, and analytics assessment of the data determines the current safety status of the structure for continued occupancy. Essentially the USHER system is an assessment tool based on data analytics.

“We look at buildings like they are people, in the sense that we establish the baseline health of a building through a system of sensors that tell us the normal pattern of vibration it experiences on a daily basis. On the occasion that an earthquake occurs, like what happened recently, the USHER system takes into account its impact on the building in how it performs after,” Uy said, in explaining his award-winning invention that now has a pending patent at the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines.

The data given by the USHER system, by establishing the “health history” of a building, gives key insights on maintaining a building’s structural integrity and informs administrators when and how to re-fortify the structure and if its health is on the decline.

A rocky start

Even as the device is now attracting attention given the spate of seismic events Luzon has undergone, it hasn’t always been this way, shared Uy. Building developers actually considered it at first as just another cost, when complying with the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) regulations.

“The USHER system actually started because of the DPWH’s National Building Code Development Office’s Memo Circular for guidelines on earthquake recording instrumentation for buildings. As advocates of disaster-readiness, we supported this order especially as back then, you remember that there was this scare on ‘the Big One’,” said Uy.

But the private sector didn’t take to the idea warmly — seeing the sensor equipment as a compliance hurdle in operating a building.

With the private sector’s cool response, Uy (through Mapua University where he serves as a Dean) approached the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) for funding. DOST saw the merit of the technology and funded it for use in its ongoing project with the DPWH specifically on bridges.

The Smart Bridge project saw the installation and pilot testing of the USHER system in the Nagtahan Bridge; With the initial success of the pilot application, Uy moved forward to apply it to his original target: buildings.

Dr. Uy applied two other projects focusing on buildings with DOST-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and DPWH, and again successfully secured funding.

“We have a program called PhilSims or Philippine Structural Integrity Monitoring System, for installation of USHER in 10 bridges, and 12 government buildings by year-end, to ensure government buildings also benefit from this technology,” he explained.

To cater to the influx of attention from private land developers now, there is a private sector project called the USHER Spin-off initiative. Under this, Uy is offering the “USHER Now, Pay Later” scheme wherein developers can use and test the technology for free until October 2019; After which they may opt to buy it or return it, free of charge.

“We want them to see the USHER system’s greatest value proposition, which is the safety and the peace of mind of building developers. We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries now from private developers but under our funding program from DOST, we’ve made some 60 units. After the program ends, we want to have our own licensed company to manufacture USHER,” Uy elaborated.

USHER’s commercialization only began in January but there seem to be no signs of it stopping; USHER will be having a grand launch in July at Sofitel Manila, where it will be showcased to The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council members, private developers, and the biggest business groups in the country.

The USHER Technology just this March was named one of the Global Winners at the World Summit Awards (WSA), the only Southeast Asian winner in the category “Smart Settlements and Urbanization”. — IPOPHL

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