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This content was paid for by Microsoft and produced in partnership with the Financial Times Commercial department.

Fortifying for the future: how AI is making our cities safer

Cities worldwide are under pressure. In Europe, it’s predicted that by 2050 the share of people living in urban areas will have risen to more than 80 per cent1. As well as increased traffic and pollution, extreme weather events caused by climate change will take their toll. Damaging storms and extremes of heat and rainfall put unforeseen strains on urban fabric — everything from housing blocks to walls and bridges. The good news is that 21st century technology can do much to help protect our threatened infrastructure.

Ageing older buildings are a real challenge for many of the world’s most advanced economies. And the need to act to ensure the resilience of these city structures comes at a time when urban resources are stretched by competing priorities. It’s clear that greater controls and repair work are required.

Petr Klokočnik became aware of this challenge — and a potential solution — when Prague’s Troja Bridge collapsed in 2017, leaving four people severely injured. 

It seemed there should be an easy answer to monitor stabilisation as well as conduct pre-emptive maintenance of these structures using the insights gained

Hailing from Liberec in the north of the Czech Republic, Klokočnik runs the 12-strong IT company founded by his father 30 years ago. With a degree in technical cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI), Klokočnik had a keen interest in automatic control systems and the application of feedback loops: using system data output to understand cause-and-effect in order to solve a problem. He made it his mission to minimise the risk of any more bridges collapsing.

As a first step, Klokočnik saw an opportunity: capturing data from infrastructure using a combination of wireless sensors and communication units attached to a bridge or building. These devices measure factors such as tilt changes, vibration, wear-down, geological effects and the impact of the elements. With the help of two developers from the family company, Klokočnik set up his new venture, Statotest.

Petr Klokočnik, Managing Director at Statotest, collaborates with everyone from builders and architects to city municipalities.

From the start, Statotest has been using Microsoft technology to deliver its solution. Data is automatically sent to the Microsoft Azure cloud service where it is processed and measured. This “invisible” monitoring takes place 24/7 and no one needs to be a data scientist to interpret the data since reports are produced in easy-to-read visual form by the business analytics service Power BI. The system warns of any deviations from the normal, so that building managers and city officials can be ready to act, without the need for constant human inspection. 

Klokočnik hasn’t stopped there. To further develop his solution, he is collaborating with academics from the Czech Academy of Science and the Czech Technical University, structural engineers, building engineers and bridge monitoring companies as well as meteorologists and geologists.

By adding weather, traffic and environmental data and by applying the capabilities of Microsoft Azure Machine Learning and Azure Stream Analytics, the team is training the system on more use cases. 

Klokočnik hopes this solution will benefit everyone from builders and architects to city municipalities. “The flexibility of Microsoft’s platform means it’s easy to add new sensors and combine it with external data. By truly understanding building dynamics and strains on construction, we can determine the causes of unwanted behaviour and will be better placed to future-proof buildings.” 

The demand for such solutions is only going to grow. Control measurements are costly and sometimes risky, and there is a shortage of experts with the appropriate skills to carry out checks. 

The Statotest sensor is easy to install, faster and cheaper than existing methods of monitoring, providing a much-needed industry-grade solution. Statotest technology is now being used everywhere from monitoring bridges and cell towers to measuring heavy snow on the rooftops of industrial plants. It has been implemented at tourist attractions, such as major waterfalls, to analyse the movement of rocks, and to measure temperature and wind levels in relation to the trees in some of the UK’s public parks to ensure public safety. 

AI really levels the playing field as it allows small companies to build solutions that have big impact. Statotest is a great example of small business creativity and agility

It shows that “thinking big but starting small with a minimum viable solution, and forging new partnerships to scale” is an approach that works. He adds: “It’s crazy that people would still lose their lives as a result of a bridge collapsing in 2021. This is a simple business problem that Statotest has tried to solve and what makes it particularly unique is the fact that it’s using technology that’s accessible, affordable and easy to use.”

As Klokočnik explains, the potential for this technology to preserve life and manage city resources is huge. “You can take this box and use it anywhere in the world.” 

It’s a fair bet that urban planners, architects and engineers will be thankful for Klokočnik’s forward-thinking solution for many years to come. 

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