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The Building Doctor

Forbes Recognizes University of Pittsburgh’s Hao Sun as “30 Under 30” in Science for His Research into Monitoring the Health of Buildings

PITTSBURGH (November 20, 2017) … London Bridge isn’t the only one falling down. Exposure to extreme weather, daily wear and tear, and destructive environmental events like earthquakes all compromise the structural integrity of bridges and buildings. The aging of large structures poses a serious threat to public safety, and the current method of inspection isn’t exactly full-coverage insurance.

“Building inspectors must physically be present to examine the structure’s condition, and even then they can’t check every single corner,” says Hao Sun, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering. “In the event of a disaster, the inspectors certainly can’t monitor building health in real-time. The fate of that building becomes a guessing game with very destructive consequences.”

Dr. Sun’s research into using advanced sensors with Internet-of-Things (IoT) connectivity and data analytics to monitor large structures earned him a spot on Forbes’ 2018 “30 Under 30” in Science list of young innovators and rising stars. They are scientists, professors, entrepreneurs, and inventors determining the future of companies, labs, and ground-breaking research while advancing our understanding of the world and the people in it.

“The recognition of my work is truly inspiring,” says Dr. Sun. “The response from my colleagues has been incredible, and this kind of encouragement is critical as I start my career leading research teams at the University of Pittsburgh.”

Dr. Sun, 29, arrived at Pitt on Sept. 1 after working as a postdoctoral associate at Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT). He’s now head of the Lab for Infrastructure Sensing and Data Science at the Swanson School. His research focuses on sensor systems and determining how the enormous amounts of data feedback from those sensors can diagnose building health.

“All buildings produce a constant stream of ambient vibrations,” explains Dr. Sun. “A 100-year-old-building is going to sound much differently than a brand new one, but safety is important for both. We can attach monitors that produce big data about the building, then we must correctly mine the data to understand the building’s condition.”

Dr. Sun’s sensors combine GPS technology, accelerometers, and tiltmeters, which measure the building’s deformation and vibration. He also uses gauges for monitoring temperature, humidity, wind velocity, and other weather conditions. The sensors communicate to each other through IoT technology, providing consistent and constant feedback while picking up those good vibrations. 

“Vibration-based structural health monitoring essentially listens to building response to assess potential risks and the current stage of the structure’s lifecycle,” says Dr. Sun. “The great thing about this strategy is it can be recorded anywhere, at any time, including normal operational conditions, intermediate stress conditions, and extreme events.”

Currently, the technology developed by Dr. Sun has been tested on MIT’s Green Building and is being applied to monitor the Al-Hamra Tower in Kuwait. The Al-Hamra Tower, a 1,358-foot skyscraper, is the 23rd tallest building in the world. It experiences severe temperature changes in the Arabian Desert and can be affected by earthquakes from nearby epicenters in Iraq and Iran. Dr. Sun is working with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research to continue the ongoing research collaboration with his colleagues from MIT, and now, Pitt.

“I’ve only been here for three months, but I’ve already partnered with several other Pitt researchers,” says Dr. Sun. “My research is interdisciplinary in nature with contributions from civil engineering, mechanics, and sensing and data science. Pitt is a great place for collaborating with researchers from different backgrounds with different strengths and areas of expertise.”

Dr. Sun’s research has been supported by Shell Global in collaboration with an MIT team led by Oral Buyukozturk, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Shell team directed by Dirk Smit, Vice President of Exploration Technology; Lorna Ortiz, Global R&D Project Manager; and Haibin Xu, Regional Manager of External Research and Innovation.

About Hao Sun
Dr. Sun’s research focuses on the advancement of scientific knowledge and the development of innovative sensing and data analytics to tackle built environment issues, specifically to address the resilience, sustainability, and safety issues of civil infrastructure systems. His interests include advanced sensing, big data analytics, machine learning, uncertainty quantification, and inverse computational mechanics, for structural health monitoring and resilience assessment. Dr. Sun is the receipt of multiple scholarships and awards, such as two poster competition awards from EMI Conference 2014, Boeing Fellowship, NSF Workshop Travel Award, and China National Merit Scholarship. 

He obtained his PhD and M.Phil. in Engineering Mechanics and MS in civil engineering from Columbia University, after completing his BS in civil engineering at Hohai University in Nanjing, China. Prior to joining Pitt, he was a postdoctoral associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Author: Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer

Contact: Paul Kovach