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


National Highways has started a digital revolution by adopting new technologies for the maintenance and operation of roads.

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

In September, the road operator unveiled a series 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 objective. Victoria Higgin, Chief Digital Officer of National Highways, explains the important role of innovation.

“It’s about keeping pace,” she says. “Make sure that we are an attractive place to work and that we can attract talent. Our mission is to connect the country. We don’t want to be late. We want to push the boundaries and lead the way.

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

On top of that, traditional methods of road maintenance present challenges in terms of “resources, materials, and planning and alignment of all of these,” Higgin explains. She adds that doing one job efficiently, such as performing multiple jobs simultaneously, can reduce the impact of road works on journeys.

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

National Highways develops digital twin technology for road 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 defines the company’s Digital Roads 2025 vision.

By 2025, National Highways road works activities will be increasingly automated, modular and driven off-site, with new initiatives rolled out on the strategic road network every year.

Overall, the vision revolves around three major themes: design and build, digital operations and digital for customers.

Design and construction

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

Higgin explains, “If you want to repeat a lift, you can do it through your digital twin, which saves you time.

In addition, the strategy involves increasing the use of off-site manufacturing and modular construction, as well as the standardization of components.

This improves safety, reduces carbon emissions and minimizes disruption.

“Bridges and gantries should just be repeatable models, in addition to having to consider the environment,” says Higgin. “Building as much as possible off-site is good.”

Finally, the strategy suggests the use of connected and autonomous installations to be integrated into construction processes, thus improving efficiency and safety. A semi-autonomous installation, such as a cone laying machine, has already been tested.

Digital operations

The digital operations theme of the strategy involves smart asset management. One innovation, for example, is the creation of a digital twin of the road network that can predict when and where 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 Cofund Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) program of the European Union, Costain and the University of Cambridge. It is funded by a £ 8.6million EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership grant and the £ 6million MSCA Future Roads scholarship program.

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

It’s about removing repetitive tasks to redirect humans to more rewarding areas where we need more brain power.

According to National Highways, this approach will significantly reduce the need for time-consuming and expensive on-site inspections, avoid unnecessary delays for drivers and reduce emissions from roadworks.

Overall, it will ensure data availability so that teams can consult the road network and make decisions at any time.

“It’s important to know when you need to maintain and fix things without having to go out and do continuous inspections,” Higgin explains. “It also has an element of safety, because you have fewer people on the side of the road. “

When it comes to inspections, the process can be improved by technology – whether it’s Internet of Things (IoT) sensors or in-car cameras.

“If you put sensors on bridges, for example, or on different parts of the road, you can start picking up things without having to do routine maintenance,” Higgin explains.

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

As such, the sensor technology will forecast traffic levels, weather and environmental conditions allowing national roads to prepare for and react preemptively to situations.

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

She explains, “It’s about removing repetitive tasks to redirect human beings to more rewarding areas where we need more brain power. “

Digital for the customer

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

In the long term, the road operator plans to provide its customers with information on journeys via on-board systems. The deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles should significantly improve traffic flow and reduce incidents by up to 90%.

“I think if you look to the future you will have connected and self-driving cars on the highways,” Higgin says. “When I say connected, imagine a world where signage and signals go straight into your cars and even where we can send messages to people in their cars. This is our aspiration.

Digital technology could mean traffic information is sent to drivers digitally

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

“It’s not just about providing data to drivers, but also data that we can collect – information about trips, for example, and how can we optimize it,” Higgin explains. “If we get the intelligence from this data, how can we better manage the network?

“When is the best time to do the interview? What technology can we use to make it last less? How can we predict rather than wait for something to break? “

National Highways ambitions include the cargo platoon – driving a group of vehicles together – and the personalized messaging in the vehicle, as well as vehicles sharing data and uncluttered roads without signage. As such, the vision for digital roads turns to 2050 and beyond.

Three main themes

The three main themes of National Highways’ Digital Roads 2025 strategy are:

Design and construction

  • Digital Design – Program design and long-term planning will be data driven and enabled by digital tools. Digitized design requirements, existing data streams, digital design tools and digital twins will be integrated to enable safer, more efficient and greener results.
  • Modularized and Standardized Approaches – The use of off-site manufacturing and modular construction will increase and components will be standardized. This will improve safety, reduce carbon emissions and minimize disruption.
  • Automated construction – Digital rehearsals and the use of connected and autonomous facilities will be integrated into construction processes, improving efficiency and safety.

Digital operations

  • Intelligent Asset Management – Data and technology will be leveraged to enable predictive asset management. Better coordination of road works and the deployment of connected and autonomous factories will improve efficiency and reduce disruption to the customer journey.
  • Improved operational capacity – Greater automation and network adaptability will be made possible through the use of data and sensor technology. When the unexpected happens, customer safety will be enhanced and traffic will be managed efficiently.
  • Digitally empowered workers – Digitally empowered workers will have access to accurate, up-to-date and consistent information, enabling them to do their jobs more efficiently and safely.

Digital for customers

  • Information Provision – Customers will receive accurate, consistent and near real-time travel information through their preferred digital channels.
  • Customer Engagement – National Highways will receive better data from customers. This will inform decision making and allow call center staff to provide better customer service. The deployment of vehicle technology and connectivity will be activated, with a focus on customer benefits.
  • Partnerships and Alliances – National Highways will work with local road authorities, transportation operators, vehicle manufacturers and technology providers to enhance the customer experience and provide end-to-end support.

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