Using robotics and artificial intelligence to protect Italian monuments, sculptures, bridges
Experts are assessing the seismic resistance of Italy’s historic treasures and putting in place monitoring systems to constantly track their structural health and viability. What puts Italy's historic buildings, monuments, bridges, and sculptures at risk are a combination of normal wear and tear, plus vibration - often provoked by seismic activity.
Civil Engineer David Lattanzi says that whereas countries like the United States can embed earthquake preparedness into new buildings it's not so easy in places like Italy, where buildings and monuments are centuries – often millennia – old.
Cultural heritage preservation is an important focus for Italy and Italian engineers are some of the best.
Seismic activity and vibrations can be compared to the vibration of a tuning fork where vibrations can vary from one point to the next - case in point monuments that are right next to each other like the Two Towers of Bologna. In the recent Emilia Romagna earthquake, the Garisenda Tower sustained damage, whereas the Asinelli tower right next to it had none.
What engineers and experts in Italy try to do is constantly monitor buildings and monuments, and to simulate how they will react under various vibration scenarios. A variety of techniques are used that work together in concert: camera systems, drones, robotic systems, and artificial intelligence.
With older monuments and sculptures, David Lattanzi says to think of them like patients. As they age, they need regular check-ups and monitoring just like we do as we age.
What can be done to protect and preserve buildings, monuments and works of art such as sculptures if they've sustained damage?
The first goal is to avoid changing the appearance to the maximum extent possible. In the case of the Garisenda Tower in Bologna, the bottom 20 feet of the tower was damaged during the earthquake, and so in addition to extensive and constant monitoring a scaffolding structure at the tower base will help to reinforce the tower and at the same time keep it flexible in the event of seismic activity - an earthquake.
Another technique used with monuments and buildings is tie rods (bolted rods) to help sandwich a structure together. These are frequently visible to the naked eye, and in fact, this is an ancient technique used by the Romans. As you tour the city, you can often see these ancient tie rods on buildings and monuments.
Italy and Earthquakes
In Italy, earthquakes can strike nearly anywhere as almost the whole Italian peninsula forms one giant earthquake-prone zone. This is due to many factors the most important of which is that the country is sandwiched between the African tectonic plate and the Alps, which makes it a hotspot for enhanced seismic activity.
A recent seismic event, the Aquila earthquake in 2009, killed more than 300 people and caused severe infrastructural damage in Aquila as well as in the whole Abruzzo region.
Almost the whole Italian peninsula - especially its southern part - is located close to the line between the Eurasian and African plates that constantly grate against each other. This causes tension and contributes to enhanced seismic and volcanic activity.
About David Lattanzi
David Lattanzi is a licensed bridge engineer who puts his professional experience to work in the development of the next generation of infrastructure inspection technologies. David Lattanzi’s group focuses on a multidisciplinary combination of data analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence, and structural engineering to help civil engineers make safer and more reliable life-cycle assessments.
Some of his current initiatives include the use of digital image analysis for rapid post-disaster assessments and how to combine autonomous robotic inspection with ultra-high resolution 3D imaging to create virtual worlds for inspectors.
His degrees include a PhD in Civil Engineering, an MS and PhD in Mechanical Engineering - University of Washington, and a BS and MS in Civil Engineering - Tufts University.
David's research interests include: robotics in smart cities, robot self-diagnostics, human-robot teaming, multi-robot systems, perception and scene reconstruction.
Italian Cultural Heritage Preservation
Bologna's Two Towers: Garisenda and Asinelli
The Two Towers (Le due torri), both leaning, are the iconic symbols of Bologna, Italy. They are located at the intersection of the roads that lead to the five gates of Bologna's old ring wall (mura dei torresotti). The taller tower is the Asinelli while the smaller - but more leaning tower - is the Garisenda. Their names derive from the families credited with constructing the towers between 1109 and 1119, over 1000 years ago.
The most recent 2012 Emilia-Romagna earthquake significantly damaged the smaller of the towers, the Garisenda. It's only possible to visit the Asinelli tower.
Bologna is an exquisite city, well worth a visit and an easy day trip from Rome. Here's my Best of Bologna Day Trip: how to get there, what to see and do, what to eat & where.
Michelangelo's David statue at the Accademia, Florence
The VAMuseum says "Michelangelo was in his early twenties when he was commissioned to create a statue representing the biblical hero of David. He was offered a colossal block of marble which had been previously worked by two other artists, Agostino di Duccio (in 1464) and Antonio Rossellino (in 1475). Both artists had abandoned their work after noticing imperfections in the marble's grain, but despite these flaws, Michelangelo took up the monumental challenge of carving the figure.
The David was initially intended for the roof space of Opera del Duomo, the cathedral in Florence, but, on seeing the finished piece, the Florence council committee chose instead to display it outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, in the Piazza della Signoria.
The finished statue was popularly known as 'The Giant' and quickly became a symbol of liberty for the Florentine people. However, the statue's vulnerable position in the piazza exposed the sculpture to weathering and vandalism, and so, at the beginning of the 19th century, the concerned council chose to move it to a safer location for preservation."
The David is now located inside Florence's Accademia Gallery.
The statue is heavily monitored at all times, especially given the fact that one of David's ankles has some micro fractures.
Florence is a must, even if it's for a day: take a look at my Best of Florence Day Trip - Top 12 Things to Do.
Two controversial Italian Bridges
Ponte San Giorgio, Genoa's new bridge
The Ponte San Giorgio (Genoa Saint George Bridge) is an expressway viaduct that crosses the Polcevera river and the Genoa districts of Sampierdarena and Cornigliano. It was designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, a Genoa native.
This bridge replaced the Ponte Morandi, which partially collapsed on 14 August 2018 and was demolished in June 2019. The new bridge opened August 4, 2020 at a cost €202 million.
The Nickel Institute says "An independent report indicated poor maintenance and flaws in the design and construction of the bridge as the likely causes behind the deadly accident. Corrosion of the cables on the top of the southern stay of one of the towers was cited as the main culprit. Also, regular inspections were said to be insufficient to allow for an adequate level of knowledge on the effective state of degradation of the cables.
Awareness about robustness and durability of bridge design has grown since Morandi’s time. Unlike the original bridge’s cable-stayed design, it uses stainless steel reinforcement, which not only guarantees mechanical strength, but also corrosion resistance."
Engineering.com calls Genoa’s San Giorgio Bridge a technological marvel. "The new bridge is 3,501 feet long and consists of 19 spans supports by helical reinforced concrete columns. Barriers made of glass provide views of the surrounding valley and mountains while casting less shadow on the citizens below. Solar panels provide power to the bridge lights. The length of the bridge is studded with sensors to measure movement, such as joint expansion, forming what amounts to a futuristic central nervous system.
The bridge brings a stunning level of innovation and makes the most of engineering simulation and technology. Keeping a close eye on—and under—the San Giorgio Bridge is a pair of two-ton robots that survey the entire underside of the deck every eight hours, sending 25,000 pictures back to engineers in real time. The robotic system features cameras and sensors that feed predictive algorithms to help predict maintenance needs and monitor the safety of the bridge. Designed by Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) and the Camozzi Group, the automated system consists of two robots that survey the bridge (Robot Inspection) and two robots that clean the glass barriers and solar panels (Robot Wash) on the structure’s parapet. This is the first system of its kind to be installed on a major structure in the world."
The Strait of Messina Bridge project
The Strait of Messina Bridge is a proposal to build a suspension bridge across the Strait of Messina to connect Sicily with mainland Italy.
In March 2023 ANSA reported that "Giorgia Meloni's Italian government has agreed to resuscitate an ancient project to build a suspension bridge connecting Sicily to mainland Italy — which happens to be in the middle of an earthquake zone.
Rome aims to resume as quickly as possible the planning process for the bridge over the Strait of Messina.
Plans to build a bridge across the 3.7-kilometer-wide Strait of Messina to connect the island of Sicily to the rest of Italy have been discussed for millennia, going all the way back to the Romans, according to some historians. They were revived by 20th century fascist leader Benito Mussolini — and, a few decades later, by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
But, in spite of the €1.2 billion in public money spent in various studies and assessments over the years, the bridge was never built — not least because it would be located in one of the most seismically active Mediterranean regions.
The bridge is still far from being constructed. In a sign of caution, the Meloni government said the project was only conditionally approved while the technical details are being worked out."
Newcivilengineer.com says the "Plans for the Messina bridge have been criticised, with commentators saying the money could be better spent on Sicily’s roads. The wisdom of its position has also been questioned, as the Strait of Messina is one of Europe’s most seismically active locations right on a fault line and is subject to periodic earthquakes. A 1908 earthquake on that fault line was the continent’s worst seismic disaster of the 20th century, killing 120,000 people. Another issue is the current of the water between Sicily and mainland Italy, which is notoriously strong, adding difficulty to the works."
David Lattanzi also points out that if the bridge is built the maintenance and sophisticated monitoring systems (and the related cost) needs to be taken into consideration.
More about Sicily, its culture, food and artisans:
Eating your way through Sicily
A Chat with the 6th Generation Owner of the Oldest Modica Chocolate Company in Sicily
A Flavor of Sicily culinary week
Sicilian Food and the Monsù Cuisine
The Best Palermo Street Food
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