Monitoring to Avert Mayhem

A new high-tech surveillance system from France warns of impending failures in large and small structures. It can save money and lives

Despite computer modeling and other modern engineering tools, catastrophic structural failures still occur, often with tragic consequences. In 1981, a suspended walkway inside the Kansas City Hyatt Regency fell during a party, killing 114 people. And in May, 2004, a section of the brand-new Air France terminal at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport collapsed. The accident took place early in the morning and four people died. Had it occurred midday, the toll could have been in the hundreds.

Such accidents may never be completely eliminated, but a French company called OSMOS has devised new technology that uses lasers, fiber optics, and computers to boost the accuracy and immediacy of structural monitoring. The early warning provided by the system not only promises to save lives, but also could give engineers the chance to rescue structures before they fall. Over the long term, OSMOS may lead to fewer unnecessary demolitions and lower insurance premiums.

Started in 2001 by French structural engineer Bernard Hodac, Paris-based OSMOS (the name stands for Objective Surveillance Modeling Optimized Serviceability) has already scored an impressive lineup of clients. During a recent presentation aboard a Seine riverboat, the 48-year-old entrepreneur delighted in pointing out the Paris landmarks already outfitted with his technology: the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d'Orsay, and the Louvre Museum, among others.


  OSMOS has firmly planted a stake on the other side of the Atlantic too. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hodac volunteered his services to the New York City government. Working with the city's Design & Construction Dept., OSMOS installed its monitoring systems in the damaged American Express and Bankers' Trust buildings near Ground Zero.

That allowed the city to send in cleanup crews, confident that there was no danger the buildings would collapse. The success at Ground Zero gave OSMOS a foothold in New York, earning it contracts to monitor 21 sites there, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Federal Hall, and the Manhattan Bridge.

Hodac first had the idea for OSMOS 20 years ago when he was working as an engineer and noticed an unsatisfied demand for more reliable and continuous structural monitoring. It took 15 years and $14 million in research and development to bring his vision to fruition. His patience has paid off: Privately-held OSMOS now has a network of fifteen affiliates across Europe, Asia, and the U.S., who have together installed more than 300 OSMOS monitoring systems around the world.


  Because of this long journey to success, Hodac likes to describe OSMOS as an "anti-startup." "Our company is about durability," he says, "We're not racing to build something new, but rather using a new technology to maintain things that are old."

Structural monitoring isn't a new idea, of course. For years, engineers have installed electronic sensors in buildings that measure the deformation of walls and supports over time and alert managers to worrisome movements.

But such systems are subject to distortion from stray electrical fields. OSMOS instead uses beams of light emitted from fiber optics, which are immune to such interference. By measuring the distance the light travels from emitters to sensors, OSMOS can sense minute shifts in a structure.


  Other firms, such as SMARTEC of the Netherlands, also have developed optics-based monitoring systems. But what sets OSMOS apart, the company says, is its user-friendly real-time analysis software. "It's of no use to retrieve billions of data points if you can't easily analyze them and pinpoint the pertinent information," says Etienne Lamairesse, the director of the company's U.S. unit.

The powerful combination of faster, more reliable measurements and easy-to-use software has earned plaudits for OSMOS. The company received an award from researcher Frost & Sullivan in 2004 for "best practices" in structural monitoring. And the company is rapidly setting up relationships with engineering firms around the world to install and service its systems.

Hodac has his eyes particularly trained on the U.S., where he is investing nearly $900,000 to build up his New York operation. He aims to recruit and train 800 partners around the U.S. on OSMOS technology.


  Hodac is also collaborating with insurance giant Marsh McLennan (MMC) to develop new, lower-cost policies for clients who employ OSMOS structural monitoring systems. The insurance plans would cover engineering fees in the event of abnormal structural behavior—a way to reduce the risk of collapse while saving money for both insurers and clients. OSMOS systems can cost as little as $10 per month for simple setups, and up to tens of thousands of dollars per month for 24-hour monitoring of large, complex structures.

Despite its high-profile customers, though, OSMOS has a long-range goal that is both more modest and far more ambitious. "Our true mission," says U.S. chief Lamairesse, "is not to focus on just a few exceptional structures, but to monitor billions of ordinary structures all over the world." Hodac even has a name for the profession he hopes will spring up around this emerging opportunity: surveillance engineering.

For many such small-scale projects, the challenge isn't avoiding spectacular collapses such as the one at Charles de Gaulle airport. Rather, it's about helping engineers prioritize which repairs are most urgent—and perhaps avoid unnecessary work or demolitions. For many private property owners or public-sector entities that look after schools and bridges, the cost of a monitoring system would be far outweighed by potential savings in routine maintenance or the expense of a catastrophic failure.


  But that's still in the future. For now, Hodac still has his sights set on one more landmark. As the Seine riverboat glides out from under the Pont de Grenelle, he points out the scaled-down replica of the Statue of Liberty that stands on an island.

"The interior structure of the Statue of Liberty—the one in America, I mean—is a Gustave Eiffel design," Hodac explains. "Since we monitor the Eiffel Tower, it's only logical to monitor her sister on the other side of the Atlantic, as a symbol of Franco-American friendship."

That's no more than a dream at this point. But given how many other precious landmarks have been entrusted to OSMOS, it wouldn't be too surprising to see Lady Liberty join the crowd someday. She is French, after all.