automated cone laying vehicle crop 1024x683

National Highways develops automation and digital strategy for roads and road projects

National Highways has begun a digital revolution, adopting new technologies for road maintenance and operation.

As the world of construction technology evolves, National Highways’ digital strategy is moving with it.

In September, the roads operator revealed a swathe of new initiatives and systems as part of its new digital roads strategy – a plan that includes connected and autonomous vehicles, digital twins and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors.

The strategy has a clear purpose. National Highways chief digital and information officer Victoria Higgin explains the important role of innovation. 

“It’s about keeping up,” she says. “Making sure we’re an attractive place to work and we can attract talent. Our mission is connecting the country. We don’t want to be behind. We want to push boundaries and lead the way.”

We don’t want to be behind. We want to push boundaries and lead the way

In addition to this, traditional road maintenance methods present challenges in relation to “resources, materials and scheduling and lining all of those up,” says Higgin. She adds that completing work efficiently, for example doing several items of work simultaneously, can reduce the impact of roadworks on journeys.

“In an ideal world, if you’re doing maintenance, you’d do everything together but you need visibility of everything to see what needs to be done on the network. You need data,” she explains.

National Highways is developing digital twin technology for roads projects

This is where National Highways’ new strategy comes in. The strategy is outlined on a new website and in a virtual learning environment, which sets out the company’s Digital Roads 2025 vision. 

Between now and 2025, National Highways’ road works activities will be increasingly automated, modular and conducted off-site, with new initiatives rolled out on the strategic road network each year. 

Overall, the vision is structured around three core themes: design and construction, digital operations and digital for customers.

Design and construction

One key innovation under the design and construction theme is the use of digital twins to help with design. Digital technologies are also expected to change construction processes.

Higgin explains: “If you want to rehearse a bridge lift, you can do that via your digital twin, so that saves time.”

In addition, the strategy involves increasing the use of offsite fabrication and modular construction, along with component standardisation.

This improves safety, reduces carbon emissions and minimises disruption.

“Bridges and gantries should just be repeatable patterns apart from having to take into account the environment,” Higgin says. “Constructing as much as possible off site is good.”

Finally, the strategy suggests the use of connected and autonomous plant to be embedded in construction processes, improving efficiency and enhancing safety. Semi-autonomous plant, such as a cone-laying machine, has already been trialled.

Digital operations

The digital operations theme of the strategy involves intelligent asset management. One innovation, for example, is the creation of a digital twin of the road network which can predict when and were potholes will occur and other maintenance issues.

National Highways is developing this system in collaboration with UK Research & Innovation, the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC), the European Union’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Cofund programme, Costain and the University of Cambridge. It is funded by an £8.6M EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership grant and the £6M MSCA Future Roads Fellowships programme.

The system works by combining live data from intelligent materials in an existing road surface with a digital twinning system that visualises the road and its condition. This then identifies when maintenance work is needed.

This is about removing repetitive tasks to repoint human beings to more rewarding areas where we need more brain power

National Highways says the approach will dramatically reduce the need for time consuming and costly on-site inspections, prevent unnecessary delays to drivers and reduce emissions generated by roadworks.

Overall, it will ensure data is available so that teams can look at the road network at any point in time and make decisions.

“Knowing when you need to maintain and repair things without having to go out and do continual inspections is important,” Higgin says. “That also has a safety element because you have fewer people roadside.”

When it comes to inspections, the process can be enhanced by technology – either Internet of Things (IoT) sensors or camera tech in cars.

“If you put sensors onto bridges, for example, or different parts of the road, you can start to pick stuff up without having to do routine maintenance,” Higgin says. 

“The ultimate goal is to be able to do predictive maintenance based on what’s coming back from sensors, because you can use your resources in the best way and plan better.”

As such, sensor technology will forecast traffic levels, weather and environmental conditions enabling National Highways to pre-emptively prepare for and respond to situations.

Higgin adds that this means humans can be deployed on more complex tasks which are more satisfying work.

She explains: “This is about removing repetitive tasks to repoint human beings to more rewarding areas where we need more brain power.” 

Digital for customer

The final theme centres on how National Highways communicates with its customers, before or during journeys. 

Ultimately, the roads operator envisages providing its customers with journey information through in-car systems. Deploying connected and autonomous vehicles is expected to drastically improve traffic flow and reduce incidents by up to 90%.

“I think if you look to the very future, you will have cars that are connected and autonomous on highways,” Higgin says. “When I say connected, imagine a world where signage and signals are transmitted directly into your cars and even where we can send messages to people in their cars. That’s our aspiration.”

Digital technology could mean that road information is sent to drivers digitally

This connectivity will also enable National Highways to receive better quality data from customers, which in turn informs decision making.

“It’s not just about providing data to drivers but also what data can we take – information about journeys, for example, and how can we optimise them,” Higgin explains. “If we get the intelligence from that data, how do we run the network better? 

“When is it best to do maintenance? What technology can we use to make it last for shorter periods of time? How can we predict rather than wait for something to be broken?”

National Highways’ ambitions include freight platooning – driving a group of vehicles together – and the  personalised in-vehicle messaging, as well as vehicles sharing data and decluttered roads free from signage. As such, the vision for digital roads looks forward to 2050 and beyond.

Three core themes

The three core themes of National Highways’ Digital Roads 2025 strategy are as follows:

Design and Construction 

  • Digitally enabled design – Scheme designs and long-term planning will be based on fit-for-purpose data and enabled by digital tools. Digitised design requirements, existing data feeds, digital design tools and digital twins will be integrated to enable safer, more efficient and greener outcomes.
  • Modularised and standardised approaches – The use of offsite fabrication and modular construction will increase and components will be standardised. This will improve safety, reduce carbon emissions and minimise disruption.
  • Automated construction – Digital rehearsals and the use of connected and autonomous plant will be embedded in construction processes, improving efficiency and enhancing safety.

Digital operations

  • Intelligent asset management – Data and technology will be harnessed to enable predictive asset management. Better roadworks coordination and the deployment of connected and autonomous plant will improve efficiency and reduce customer journey disruption.
  • Enhanced operational capability – Greater automation and network adaptability will be enabled through the use of data and sensor technology. When the unexpected does happen, customer safety will be enhanced and traffic will be managed efficiently.
  • Digitally enabled workers – Digitally enabled workers will have access to accurate, up to date and consistent information, enabling them to do their work more efficiently and more safely.

Digital for customers

  • Information provision – Customers will receive accurate, consistent and close to real time journey information through their preferred digital channels.
  • Customer engagement – National Highways will receive better quality data from customers. This will inform decision making and enable call centre staff to provide better customer service. Deployment of vehicle technology and connectivity will be enabled, focusing on the benefits to customers.
  • Partnerships and alliances – National Highways will work with local highway authorities, transport operators, vehicle manufacturers and technology providers to improve customer experience and provide end to end journey support.

Like what you’ve read? To receive New Civil Engineer’s daily and weekly newsletters click here.

Source link

Share this!