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I can think of all kinds of alert systems that would work without human intervention, including concrete construction. With so many variables affecting the field performance of concrete, the industry seemingly screams for artificial intelligence that a. alerts "whom it may concern" that concrete in place (vs. potentially unrepresentative samples) isn't meeting specifications and b. allows the concrete producer to get paid as soon as possible.

Dr. Paul Tikalsky and graduate student David Tepke of Penn State University have invented something that just might turn these dreams into reality. Their original prototype, the "smart maturity meter," collects concrete temperature data from a standard maturity meter—which measures the heat of cement hydration against time to provide a "strength fingerprint"—on a microchip. Connected to formwork with sensor wires, the device sends a constant data stream to a computer using cellular technology.

Software in the computer can be programmed to alert "whom it may concern" via e-mail or a page that the concrete in place has passed desired thresholds. Its signaling capability allows the device to provide temperature alerts as well as strength data standard maturity meters provide.

Tikalsky and Tepke's device uses rather simple technology that's getting more sophisticated. Instead of sending signals to cell towers, the next prototype will send signals to satellites, eliminating the problem of cellular "dead spots," Tikalsky says. Several concrete production "giants" have looked at using the device, and several manufacturers have looked at making it commercially available by the end of the year. Most importantly, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has shown a lot of interest in the device.