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Scottish researchers have developed an ultrasound sensor that is able to detect cracks and faults in buildings and facilities, such as oil pipelines and nuclear reactors, based on a system similar to the hearing mechanisms in bats, dolphins and moths.

According to the research, published in the Journal of Applied Mathematics, scientists at Strathclyde University (Glasgow, Scotland) have developed a transducer (a component that converts physical to electrical signals and vice versa) that can detect physical faults via variable supersonic frequencies. The transducer has a flexible structure based on fractals, a geometric form that is composed of copies of itself of diminishing sizes, like snowflakes or cauliflower.

One of the researchers, Tony Mulholland, explained that man-made transducers have a normal geometric form, similar to a chess-board, and this limits the technology’s potential in finding cracks and faults in buildings and infrastructure where safety is vital. He went on to add that in the past transducers were manufactured in a uniform process where engineers performed cuts using a saw. Now, in the age of 3D printing, laser technology and computerized production, conditions have changed.

The new transducer is capable of detecting cracks of different sizes by emitting complex sound waves at various frequencies, thus emulating the spatial location techniques of bats and other animals. Beyond improvements in safety, this new device can be instrumental for cost reductions as well, Dr Mulholland went on to add, as early detection will allow for fewer and less frequent inspections of essential infrastructure, such as bridges, dams, highways, pipelines, and more.

Infrastructure maintenance is a top priority for many of the world’s nations, with challenges stemming from varied sources, such as aging, environmental damages, terror acts, and cyber attacks. Once again, nature provides inspiration and assists in advancing humanity and increasing our safety.

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