'Harp monitor' provides bridge engineers with structural fatigue data

One of the UK’s most famous bridges, Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, has been turned into a musical instrument, capable of playing music composed from its own structural data.

  • Sensors provide unique insight into how bridge moves – changes in movement can indicate possible ageing or fatigue
  • Musicians and sound artists created an installation to musically represent this structural data
  • Software sends data to bridge management personnel in real time, anywhere in the world

A specially-made double-strung harp will give a unique insight into how the Clifton Suspension Bridge moves and will help to demonstrate the impact of vehicles, pedestrians and the weather.

The data is being used by engineers at the university to improve structural models of the bridge and to design a system to classify vehicle traffic.

The EPSRC-supported project, developed by the Jean Golding Institute at the University of Bristol, sees the harp being played with two robotic arms, each strumming the strings on different sides to represent data collected on the north and south sides of the bridge.

Six streams of data were collected from sensors installed on the bridge for a month, allowing engineering academics to understand how it moves, with any changes in the movement profile indicating possible ageing or fatigue.

Software allows the data to be displayed to structural engineers or bridge management personnel in real time, anywhere in the world.

Bristol-based musicians and sound artists, Yas Clarke and Lorenzo Prati, then created an installation to musically represent this structural data.

The harp was designed and built by Bristol-based luthier and guitar maker, Sean Clark. It has 82 strings and is tuned in relation to the bridge’s natural frequency of 12.9Hz.

While six sensors were needed to monitor the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the technology can be scaled-up to measure vibrations and displacements on far larger bridges.

The dashboard has since been used to monitor the Clifton Suspension Bridge for a second time and the learning gathered from this project is already being used by PhD students at the University of Bristol to design a structural health monitoring system to go on a new fibreglass bridge being built in North Bristol.

The data-gathering and dashboard project was funded by the university’s EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account.

The harp project was developed by the Jean Golding Institute at the University of Bristol, which supports interdisciplinary research in data science.

Sam Gunner, an Engineering Mathematics PhD student who has led the project, says: “To see our research represented in this way is really remarkable. The Clifton Suspension Bridge is a much-loved sight and now people can both see and hear it in a new light.

“Aside from the harp offering a visual and audio experience, it embodies important research which allows us to better understand how the bridge moves and the impact of vehicles, pedestrians and the weather.”