16th January 2017

Smart cities say ‘on your bike!’ to potholes

The bane of motorists’, fleet managers’ and councils’ lives, potholes blight towns and cities across the UK, creating damage, anger and budgetary upheaval. Technology is coming up with answers to so many challenges these days, though, and is even starting to contribute to the fight against potholes thanks to advances in smart bikes, smart cities, the Internet of Things and data-sharing.

Potholes are equally viewed as the enemy by anyone who’s done what feels like the noble thing and ditched their car for a bicycle, with environmental, health and financial benefits dangling as carrots on the end of the stick. Potholes – or craters as some of them should more accurately be described – can cause vehicles to swerve into cyclists’ paths, easily have the potential to damage bicycle and vehicle wheels and certainly pose a significant risk over physical injury or even death, the DfT revealing that between 2010 and 2014 over 210 cyclists were killed in circumstances greatly contributed to by ‘poor or defective road surface’1.

Cycling technologists have fortunately been working hard to ameliorate the fraternity’s lives, from ICON+ ‘intelligent sensing’ lights from a company called See.Sense in Belfast that among other functions can detect potholes and enable the data to be uploaded voluntarily to other users2, to the Vanhawks Valour smart bike which uses a 9-axis accelerometer to detect likely potholes and shares the data with the Vanhawks community so that other cyclists owning or renting these bikes will receive on-handlebar-screen information warning them about roads with poor surfaces3. It must be conceded that not all cyclists will be able to afford smart bikes. Still, such technologies are undoubtedly going to start improving the lives of all road users, so have got to be admired.

Automatic reporting of potholes through developments in big data, the internet of things, crowd data-sharing and general connectivity is ultimately set to prove more reliable and wide-reaching than solely relying on more passionate members of society manually sending such information using a smartphone app4. Some critics have raised concerns that apps such as StreetBump from the City of Boston primarily benefitted society’s well-to-do, but this disparity was subsequently addressed5

At the Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona it was explained how data on potholes and ‘near misses’ can also be sent to city planners to help in making road networks safer, and smart cities will really come into their own in the fight against potholes when the actual repair of them is also automated – which is something scientists are already working on. Leeds University is involved in a national research project including the development of drones that are hoped will autonomously inspect, detect, diagnose and repair potholes.

Such “Perceive and Patch” technology could be deployed in the dead of night to avoid disrupting traffic flow and should prove more efficient and cost-effective than the human touch, helping councils’ budgets stretch further. “We can support infrastructure which can be entirely maintained by robots and make the disruption caused by the constant digging up of the roads in our cities a thing of the past”, comments Professor Phil Purnell from the School of Civil Engineering.

It’s not just social activists and cyclists that are collecting pothole data, though. York City Council is benefitting from some of a £1.2bn government fund to trial high-definition pothole-detecting cameras on its bin waggons as they collect the city’s waste6. Jaguar Land Rover’s boffins in the Midlands have also been developing a pothole alert system7. Who knows, maybe most modern cars and commercial vehicles will be fitted with pothole scanners in the not-too-distant future? Then again, flying cars may be here soon enough, consigning potholes to the history books.

With the nation’s pothole repair bill estimated to reach £14bn by 20208 and with many councils across the UK such as in Liverpool and Oxfordshire9 having just received funding boosts from central government for addressing the perennial issue, 2017 could be the year when the tide really starts to turn when it comes to smoothing out our rather battered road network with the added help of IoT technology. Let’s hope so.