The Memorial Bridge doesn't just allow folks to cross over the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Kittery in Maine, it also serves as a living laboratory. Now home to a host of sensors, the so-called living bridge provides researchers, engineers and the general public with information about the day-to-day life and health of the bridge itself, as well as monitoring the surrounding environment.

"Building a new bridge can cost communities millions of dollars, so there is interest in exploring ways to get bridges to do more than just transport people and goods," said principal investigator of the Living Bridge Project, Erin Bell.

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire have installed 40 data sensors on the heavily-traveled Memorial Bridge, and moored a floating platform to the pier that's home to a weather station and its own bank of sensors.

These data gatherers provide researchers, engineers and the public with updates on such things as the structural performance, traffic patterns, weather conditions, sea level and tidal information. Bridge nerds – if there is such a thing – can even access information on the behavior of the towers while lifting the center section to allow ships to pass underneath.

"We call it a 'living' bridge because it can talk to us and provide valuable information about its health – the stress it deals with, the ease at which it moves, what's happening around it and even under it in the Piscataqua River," explained Bell. "This bridge is not just for getting us across the water, it can teach us so much more about the world around us."

Researchers and engineers will be able to use the data gathered to inform the designs of future bridges and, noting that the Piscataqua River is one of the Eastern seaboard's fastest navigable waterways, the researchers installed a tidal turbine on the floating platform, which could offer insights into the viability of renewable energy projects.

"What is exciting about this is that tidal energy can be very predictable," said the project's Martin Wosnik. "Unlike solar panels, which can be unreliable due to cloudy days or bad weather, tidal energy is more stable because we can predict the tides well into the future."

Information collected from the sensors and turbine is being made available to other researchers, and forms the basis of a teaching tool for K-12 science projects. A phone app that offers background information about the bridge and its surroundings is also in development. The video below has more.