Emerging Technologies vs. Potholes

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The Internet of Things, Big Data, and drones can fix pavement before it gets worse. The conditions of our roads tell us we can use all the help we can get.

In an age where the Internet of Things (IoT) is being applied to cities – identify leaking water mains, unusually heavy traffic, malfunctioning stoplights, etc. – along with the use of Big Data and data analytics, one would hope that prevention and expeditious repair of potholes would be among the net improvements from these emerging technologies.

To some extent it is already happening. Better yet, there may be a lot of hope for cost-efficient management of infrastructure maintenance in the not-too-distant future. The tools include IoT, data analytics, drones, and probably a number of things yet to be imagined.

What are the new technologies are and exactly how can they maintain good pavement on city streets, suburban avenues and on country roads and highways? In summary, they are modern, overlapping tools that amount to efficient ways to identify and address the age-old problem of broken asphalt:

Big Data – Larger cities like Chicago are already applying data gathered on the streets to at least identify where the potholes are and the scheduling of their repair. At a gathering of urban planners, transportation officials, crime prevention professionals, and others in early February 2017, “New Partners for Smart Growth Conference,” presenters discussed where and how these things work. Tom Shenk Jr., Chicago’s chief data officer, detailed the city’s open data portal to compile 311 reports on potholes, which is then fed to a site called OpenGrid.io, which helps repair crews to map out repair plans.

Other data that might help in pothole prevention would come from sensors that identify where water collects on streets and fails to drain after rainstorms and snowmelt. Those are the locations most vulnerable to pothole formation.

Twitter and the Smart Cities Initiative – The U.S. Senate, very often late to the game on technology and its applications to such things as infrastructure, learned a few things from former Newark Mayor Corey Booker, now a Senator representing New Jersey, when he discussed how citizens would tweet to him about potholes. It was in a June 2016 hearing, “Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security,” where he shared with the subcommittee, “When I was mayor I discovered that if I started to encourage constituents to tweet at me problems that I would begin to find out about things. It worked better than I knew. I could find out about potholes before my road engineers.”

Booker went on to express his support for and appreciation of the Smart Cities Initiative, which includes the Smart City Challenge, which leverages technology to deal with the critical problems facing urban areas: traffic congestion, crime, delivery of city services, managing the effects of climate change, and to foster economic growth. Note how potholes play a role in several of those concerns.

Phone apps – As reported previously on Pothole.info, apps such as SeeClickFix are employed by cities and elsewhere to identify and connect with departments of transportation with photos of potholes that need fixing. The app website reports that more than 3 million issues (primarily potholes and streetlight outages) have been fixed thanks to a million users, 90% of which have been fixed.

Drones – Researchers at the University of Leeds in England are pursuing the concept of “self-repairing cities,” which would include the use of drone robots to identify and fix potholes. The critical advantage a drone might have is to recognize pothole formation in its earliest phase – small cracks – and applying sealants to fill those cracks to prevent an incursion of moisture that would lead to larger potholes later.

With an aging network of roads, streets and highways that are becoming an increasing barrier to efficient transportation, these kinds of innovations should be welcome. Some argue that technologies will eliminate jobs in the public and private sectors; in these particular cases, where municipal services are lacking in multiple areas, it seems lower costs and reduced labor needs in one area simply frees up budget and people to address public needs in other areas.

Even if every pothole on earth is filled and new ones prevented, staff writers at SpaceDaily.com predict future pothole-like problems on the final frontier. Space junk orbiting the earth – debris from expired spacecraft, launch vehicles, explosions, and even paint flecks – number 500,000 pieces of 1 cm or larger. They call these “space potholes,” perhaps because they can be damaging and dangerous to travelers in the growing extraterrestrial exploration industry.