27th April 2017
How cameras, sensors and crowdsourced data are helping combat potholes
Along with soap operas, gardening, football and most definitely the ever-changing weather, another topic that crops up more and more in British conversations is that of potholes, a ubiquitous blight causing plenty of damage, expense, injury and even death.
Potholes are something that all motorists, cyclists and people who travel by public transport can relate to, kept in the spotlight through headlines such as “’Pot-hole ridden Flintshire road like Wacky Races’, says angry driver”2, “’Cheshunt potholes will cause fatality’, warns furious resident”3, “Guerilla gardeners are filling Bath’s ‘death trap’ potholes with soil and pansies”4 and “Councils face £12bn bill to get on top of the pothole problem”5.
The latest Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey by the Asphalt Industry Alliance (AIA) reports that one in six roads across England and Wales will need to be closed or repaired within the next five years, with weather, rising traffic levels and underfunding having rendered 17% of local roads in an unacceptable condition and leaving councils facing a bill of upto £12 billion.
For years, local authorities and other organisations have made attempts at remedying the UK’s pothole crisis. Back in 2013, the DfT awarded £30,000 towards the continued development of a smartphone app called ‘Fill that hole’, produced by CTC, the National Cycling Charity. The app evolved from an iPhone tool for cyclists into one that all road users could use, on Android and other operating systems, enabling councils to receive information about potholes that could otherwise have slipped the net7.
In 2015, Jaguar Land Rover announced8 that it was researching connected car technology enabling a vehicle to identify the location and severity of a pothole, along with other dangerous hazards such as broken manhole covers and drains, sharing this crowdsourced data with other equipped vehicles and also councils in real-time through the cloud. JLR’s Global Connected Car Director, Dr Mike Bell, commented that using the sensors which form part of the optional MagneRide adaptive magnetic damping package on the Evoque and Discovery Sport opens up a “huge opportunity to turn the information into big data…for the benefit of other road users”.
JLR’s revelation was accompanied firstly by plans to work innovatively with Coventry City Council to identify the most effective ways of embracing big data road profile information to prioritise repairs and ultimately boost safety, and secondly with an outlined strategy to fit an Evoque research vehicle with an advanced forward-facing stereo digital camera and road surface sensing technology. The boffins in Whitley envisaged road-scanning technology effectively working as a pothole prediction system which, combined with driverless vehicles, would result in the automatic evasion of potholes and in autonomous braking to minimize the impact of a collision.
MagneRide9 technology is still very much alive and well, now fitted as standard on the Evoque10 and either by default or as an option on other wide-ranging makes, from Ford Mustangs and most Ferraris to various Audis and certain GM models11. JLR’s efforts, however, are still ongoing – and it looks like Ford might pip them to the pothole-busting post.
In February 2017, Ford12 announced its own crowdsourced virtual pothole map development technology, with one of the research engineers, Uwe Hoffmann, indicating that it will integrate nicely with many of the brand’s models which “already feature sensors that detect potholes”, the aim being that they are now “looking at taking this to the next level”. This entails HD cameras, sensors and ‘embedded modems’ that will detect potholes and update Ford’s map in real-time, sharing this data with drivers in other compatible models and displaying pothole warnings on their infotainment screens. Various Galaxy, Mondeo and S-Max variants already incorporate on-board sensors as part of Ford’s ‘Continuously Controlled Damping with Pothole Mitigation’ technology, which automatically adjusts the suspension to reduce any potential impact. Testing this system in combination with a ‘big data’ map is currently in progress and Ford hopes to bring the combined technology to the automotive retail market later this year.
It’s worth noting that Nottingham Trent University13 worked at developing pothole ‘smart scanners’ back in 2015 using 2D and 3D scanners, sensors and algorithms to identify early signs of asphalt damage likely to lead to potholes – officially known as ‘ravelling’. The University intended that its technology, which is intelligent enough to distinguish between ravelling and other textural variations like tyre marks, oil spills and leaf mulch, would be made available as open source as well as adopted by paving specialists such as Dynatest.
Dustbin trucks in York will also be trialling pothole-detecting camera technology for a year after the City of York Council14 was chosen to share in £1.2bn of government funding to combat this issue blighting the daily lives of UK motorists. As part of a study called ‘Connected Autonomous Sensing Service Delivery Vehicles’ (CASS-DV)15, contracting firm, Amey, has teamed up with robotics specialists, RACE, to develop a vehicle that will utilise sensors and real-time data to understand its environment and carry out routine maintenance tasks autonomously, from cutting grass and cleaning streets to filling in potholes. Similar pothole-patching drones are being developed at the University of Leeds16 with the help of ‘Engineering Grand Challenges’ funding, with the vision of such ‘perceive and patch’ robots negating the need for large construction vehicles to enter the city centre and for repairs to be effected during the night to minimise disruption to road users. Autonomous maintenance abilities will extend to include utility pipes, streetlights, pavements, kerbs, bins and other urban infrastructure.
With a whole raft of technologies being developed and tweaked with the objective of making Britain’s roads smoother, safer and more cost-effective to maintain, it certainly looks like local authorities will soon finally be able to gain control of the pothole problem which has long eluded them.
5, 6 http://www.fleetnews.co.uk/news/fleet-industry-news/2017/04/03/councils-face-12bn-bill-to-get-on-top-of-the-pothole-problem
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