CIVIC-PG Track A: Leveraging Existing Fiber-Optic Cables to Identify and Manage Urban Environmental Hazards

Project: Research project

Project Details


Cities around the world are dealing with the compounding challenges of aging infrastructure and climate change. This manifests as issues such as leaky sewer pipes, chronic flooding, and geotechnical failures. Many of these issues are related to the subsurface environment that plays many critical roles for cities, but for which there is a lack of real-time information. Moreover, communities that are socio-economically disadvantaged and/or composed primarily of racial minorities are commonly more exposed to more environmental hazards than those in the majority population or neighborhoods with higher incomes. Cities are in need of cost-effective and equitable ways to identify, monitor and prioritize interventions to manage these issues. This research leverages existing telecommunication fiber-optic infrastructure that is nearly ubiquitous in all cities. The approach involves a novel, optic fiber, subsurface, environmental sensor network. The project targets locations that have fiber option cables and that are subjected to certain types of infrastructure issues and hazards such as subsidence or land failure, leaking sewer pipes, or poor drainage. Data will be collected from select locations that leverage existing cables and sensors (e.g., sewer flow sensors) or other data on environmental hazards (e.g., sinkholes, flooding reports, or inventory data for landslide proneness), information that comes from city partners. These external sensors are used to validate the fiber optic sensing against traditional sensing approaches and/or environmental hazard data. This project allows demonstration and testing of new real-time, high spatial resolution, easy-to-implement, low cost, sensing system that has potential to revolutionize how installed city infrastructure is managed to address civic challenges and create smart, sustainable cities. Because of its setting, aging infrastructure, and involvement of researchers with municipal groups, Pittsburgh PA was selected for the initial implementation. Broader impacts include development of a new type of urban infrastructure and ground hazard monitoring and warning system, improved city services, and new insights and lessons learned that can facilitate broader implementation of this potentially impactful, yet low-cost tool for urban environments.This research planning phase will establish scientific foundations that enable the civic partners to expand the implementation of the fiber optic cable, geophysical, sensing technology citywide to identify and monitor environmental and infrastructure hazards. The effort will deploy the newly developed intervention to inform city and urban decision makers to help them manage infrastructures hazards in a more cost-effective, timely, and equitable manner. If successful, this project will improve early warning capability for multiple hazards in urban areas, help manage and minimize these hazards in cost-effective and equitable manners, impact the design of future infrastructure networks and more resilient cities, develop workforce for implementation of the technology, and highlight potential opportunities for urban planners to increase environmental equity in the siting of telecom optical fibers. This project is transformative because the technical and practice outcome based on telecom dark fiber we demonstrate in this project could be used for other smart cities.This project is in response to the Civic Innovation Challenge program—Track A. Living in a changing climate: pre-disaster action around adaptation, resilience, and mitigation—and is a collaboration between NSF, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Energy.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
Effective start/end date10/1/229/30/23


  • National Science Foundation: $50,000.00


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