Concrete. Steel. When building with materials like this, we think of Herculean strength — of structures designed to weather storms and ice; wear and tear and daily use for decades at a time. So no wonder we don’t worry about structural integrity when we drive across a bridge or use a tunnel. Except that, honestly? We probably should.
“Humidity alert in sector C12.” That’s all the text said. But it was enough information to tell Mr.Limburg, a building engineer in Southern Germany that something wasn’t right. From the outside, the tunnel – which had been recently repaired – looked flawless. But the measurements told the customer that something had gone awry: the humidity inside the structures hadn’t decreased, as is usual after a repair. Limburg asked the construction company to re-do their work and they were happy to solve the mistake they had made at no extra cost.
This was a rare happy ending: an issue of this sort usually takes ten years before it becomes visible on the surface of the tunnel. Unfortunately, at this point, there’s already a considerable amount of internal damage to the structure, something that costs immense quantities of money and time to fix. On this occasion, the company had only needed several weeks to figure out there was a problem.
It was all thanks to BS2, a German company which has created a technologically-savvy way of monitoring structures.
“We were the first company to do something like this,” BS2’s CEO Benedikt Seuss, tells me over the phone. “You know – working with concrete sensors, especially in combination with wireless or IoT technology. There were already sensors for things like this with cables in universities and in laboratories, for material testing. But obviously that isn’t ideal for buildings, because the environment isn’t very electronic-friendly and you get issues with batteries and coverage.”
So what does the magical device look like? “It looks like an ice hockey puck – exactly that size and shape.” The hockey puck-type structure provides digital monitoring for bridges, tunnels, and other concrete structures, which means that all data is visible on a hand-held display or a webpage. His device means those monitoring the structure no longer have to break into the surface of the structure (as is the non-technological way) to take a sample of concrete and send it to a lab for analysis.
The BS2 story started way back when, back when Benedikt was just 16 years old – Mark Zuckerberg, eat your heart out. He started the company with a friend — as self-taught tech-heads, they both enjoyed tinkering with computers and thought they might as well make money from it. They began by programming websites for small companies near where they lived, in Koblenz. When Benedikt’s friend started university, he left the company, but Benedikt wasn’t deterred and decided to keep on making things alone. By the age of 20, Benedikt was working on a software development project for a long-term customer of theirs, an engineering company who worked with underground cables. This engineering company were the ones who had the lottery win of an idea: could BS2 make an IoT powered monitoring solution and alarm to track a manhole cover for them?
“We developed the sensor with a special housing that we still use today because when it comes to working in underground conditions, you generally have these very specific environmental requirements, it’s very hot in the summer, very cold in winter. Plus there are chemicals underground and it’s always wet, so from the get-go, we started to develop very rough rugged solutions for outdoor environments. That’s how we started getting skilled at this — making electronic work in these very specific environments.”
There were challenges along the way. “The customer said, “it’s great that you have a sensor with a battery” — that’s where we started — “but we need something which will work for decades.” We realized we needed to research how to make the sensors more or less autonomous in terms of energy because if we relied on battery power, five or six years later, this sensor wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t be able to get it back, since most buildings stand for at least 30 or 40 years or much longer.”
Once they cracked the issue by using RDIF and NB-IoT based technology to operate the devices remotely and success came shortly afterwards: one of their first customers was the city of Mannheim, which boasts district heating – a system for distributing heat generated in one place through a network of underground pipes. “Mannheim wanted us to monitor whether the steam was getting out, whether water was rising inside. And because of the water going from cold to hot, they also had issues with rotting concrete and that’s where we started.” They went from the city of Mannheim to helping out Frankfurt Airport, who had problems with corrosion and humidity in the underground concrete shafts which lay under the runway. As the years passed, they realized that this wasn’t just a solution that Germany badly needed, but which the world needed — they did work in Rotterdam Harbor as well as in Austria and Switzerland and working on a project on the underground in Dubai. Now BS2 is poised to expand even further.
Their plan to expand further internationally came together after they took part in the warp narrowband IoT program at hubraum two years ago. “Joining the program was the point that we made contact with Deutsche Telekom and with the sales people there, and to this day we still get great support in terms of getting in touch with customers.” He’s upfront about the challenges his small but potent company faces: “On one hand, we offer a service which is quite unique internationally but on the other hand we have a sales team of two people and as such, the international market is one of the biggest issues. Deutsche Telekom really helped us with this.” But Seuss is also quick to praise the technological aspect of the program, explaining he “really got supported on a technological level dealing with this new narrowband technology – we got help from the hubraum team.”
These days, Benedikt has his gaze set squarely on success in the United States and Japan. But it’s not just the number of countries BS2 will work in that’s increasing, but the number of services they’ll offer: from monitoring the movement of roof structures to send an alarm out for excessive quantities of ice or snow to hydration sensors for buildings, there’s tons of functions they’re hoping to launch soon.
In a nutshell? BS2 have nothing to be alarm-ed about: the world’s at their feet.