Newer technologies are reinventing how we fix crumbling infrastructure – in particular, potholes. Cars, bikes, garbage trucks, and drones are part of it.
In an era when smartphones, “smart cities,” the Internet of Things (IoT), and “the cloud” litter our conversations, it may seem as if the discussion is moving far away from the basics of unbroken asphalt and smooth pavement. But in fact these are things that might mean fewer street potholes, more-efficient transportation – and lower infrastructure maintenance costs.
This is because newer technologies can support municipal use of the digital revolution to detect, report, and initiate repairs of pavement. Some of these technologies – the cloud and smart phones, for example – work together. But actually there are several distinct developments that don’t necessarily follow from each other, yet the collectively address the problem of deteriorating pavement in different and effective ways.
A cluster of gee-whiz futuristic road maintenance technologies were on display at the Mobile World Congress gathering in Barcelona last year. Companies that included AT&T, Inrix, Ericsson, Intel, Parkeon, See.Sense and Cisco shared ways in which remote sensors, wireless technology, Big Data, the cloud – with sensor mounts on drones, garbage trucks and bicycles – can help detect and sometimes respond in real time to weather patterns, traffic – and potholes.
For example, See.Sense is a Northern Ireland firm that makes a $99 sensor that is attached to bicycles and uses the cyclist’s smartphone to communicate the presence of potholes (as well as factors relating to air quality) to city monitors. It basically allows community-minded (and pothole-fearing) cyclists to put their pavement proximity to work.
The consensus of attendees at the show, according to Computerworld magazine, was that various forms of IoT are in the earliest phases of development, but that these technologies are showing us the realm of the possible.
Here are some other pavement-related technological innovations:
Boston’s Street Bump – This city leveraged in 2012 the considerable brain trust of its educational institutions with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to develop its Street Bump program. It’s a phone app-based system that employs the technology of vertical accelerometers – which record sudden up-down movement – combined with GPS data. Motorists engage it as they begin a driving trip. Through the statistical accumulation of many drivers using the app – crowdsourcing – bumps in the road that turn up most frequently get the city’s most urgent attention.
Google’s vertical accelerometer/GPS patent – The company most recognized for its search engine is also leading in the driverless car arena, which is why in 2015 it patented software that is similar to Boston’s Street Bump. Google’s program will likely be incorporated into driverless cars to detect potholes, which subsequently enables other cars with compatible technology to avoid. Concurrently, the Google cars will supply that information to the municipality to prompt repairs. DitigalTrends.com reported on the software, adding, “empirical data might just help convince skeptics to address the U.S.’s chronic infrastructure shortfall.”
City of York, England garbage trucks – Why depend on drivers and bicyclists to cover all a city’s streets when the garbage trucks are doing it already on a weekly basis? Both the northern UK city of York and Thurrock Council (near London) are using pothole identification technology mounted to refuse collection trucks to find the potholes in the earliest stages of development. As is well understood, cracks and small potholes can be repaired at a much lower cost when caught early, versus having to repave altogether a few years later.
Leeds University’s drones – With a $6.4 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the University’s research engineers are working on “perceive and patch” drones that will actually find and repair potholes. According to PopularMechanics.com, which reported on the study at its launch in 2015, “a bigger issue is overcoming the payload limitations of drones,” says the site. “For a drone to fix a pothole, it must be able to transport heavy construction materials such as cement or asphalt. While there are efforts to create drones that can carry more weight without being too cumbersome and clumsy themselves, perhaps the more realistic solution is to use multiple drones flying in formation to carry heavy payloads.”
Which paints quite a picture. But with so much interest in making the streets and highways smoother, safer, and less costly, these lurches forward to new technologies certainly seem like positive developments. Even if there are a few bumps along the way.