Cheating the quake

With this summer’s tragic events in Turkey, Athens, and Taiwan, the devastating power of the earthquake has rarely been more comprehensively demonstrated in the modern age. As well as the devastating loss of human life, both quakes have caused irreparable damage to some of the world’s oldest and most visited buildings.

A project at the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi offers one possible way in which buildings, and people, could be protected from future quakes. Earthquakes in 1997 left the Italian shrine severely damaged, killing two monks and destroying a number of priceless frescos.

Driven by a European Union project, Italian engineering company FIP Industriale has used shape memory alloys to devise a solution which the company believes to be a world first.

Bundles of up to 80 wires which are able to flex and absorb the shock of a quake are being installed in the walls of the Basilica. Made from Nickel-Titanium alloy, the properties of these wires mean that they can be bent and stretched and will recover their original shape immediately.

It is claimed that Nickel-Titanium alloy could have an elastic strain capacity of over 6%, more than 30 times that of structural steel. Tests carried out at Italy’s Laboratory for Structural Assessment would seem to back this up. Masonry walls protected with the wires were able to withstand twice the force of the original quake, leading to estimates that structures protected with these wires could survive earthquakes which would flatten buildings reinforced with steel bars.

In another development, researchers at North Carolina University’s centre for robotics and intelligent machines have designed a robot caterpillar which is able to locate people trapped within the rubble of a collapsed building.

Pipes are often left intact when a building is destroyed and Moccasin II is designed to be able to navigate its way through a complicated course of piping, executing 90 degrees turns and vertical climbs.

This segmented robot is equipped with a video camera, lights, and sensors which can hear vibrations from someone tapping on the pipes.