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Wed December 06 2023

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National Highways to create ‘digital roads’

3 Sep 21 National Highways - formerly Highways England - has set out plans to develop a virtual twin of its network for use in predicting the location of potholes and other maintenance issues.

The initiative is part of a ‘digital revolution’ intended to transform its operations. The virtual twin of the road network one of a number of innovations set out in National Highways’ new digital roads strategy, which is outlined on a new ‘Digital Roads’ website and ‘virtual learning environment’.

Other initiatives include intelligent road materials able to repair themselves and more connected and autonomous plant.

The web pages set out the company’s Digital Roads 2025 vision and how the growth of digital technology and the move to electric, connected and autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change roads in the future.

National Highways executive director of strategy and planning Elliot Shaw said: “We are at the beginning of a digital revolution on our roads network, a once-in-a-century transformation which will fundamentally change how our roads are designed, built, operated and used.

The Digital Roads journey, the strategy that will create the roads of the future, is huge. It covers every aspect of the roads infrastructure from design and construction, to how roads are operated to the changing experience for all road users.

“Digital Roads will make our roads safer and greener. Improvements and maintenance will be delivered more quickly with less disruption and road users will have a far better end-to-end journey experience, with savings on time and the cost of travel.”

National Highways, formerly Highways England, is laying the foundations of its digital vision with several partnerships. The road twinning system is being developed in collaboration with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the EU MSCA COFUND programme, Costain and the University of Cambridge. It will see drawings and static models replaced with digital versions that can identify when maintenance is needed.

The system is being developed thanks to two grants: the £8.6m EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership grant and the £6m EU MSCA COFUND Future Roads Fellowships programme.

National Highways is preparing to launch a Digital Roads innovation competition later in the year looking for fresh ideas and involvement. This will be funded through a designated innovation and modernisation fund.  

The University of Cambridge Principal Investigator of these grants, Dr Ioannis Brilakis, said: “It is high time the transportation infrastructure sector embraces digital transformation. We should strive to replace drawings and static 3D models with dynamic and data-rich digital twins, pdf documents with databases, file exchange with cloud permissions exchange, passive materials with smart materials able to sense and heal themselves and automate all manual routine maintenance. All this is possible on a data science foundation, able to generate rich, data-driven insights to help us make better decisions.”

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Combining ‘live’ data from intelligent materials in the existing road surface with a digital twinning system that visualises the road and its condition will identify when maintenance work is needed, with roads able to repair themselves using self-healing materials, said National Highways. It believes that this will dramatically reduce the need for time consuming and costly on-site inspections, prevent unnecessary delays to drivers and reduce the emissions generated by roadworks.

Also in use or being developed are connected and autonomous plant, off-site fabrication and modular construction methods. For instance, an automated cone laying machine (pictured) has been developed through National Highways’ innovation fund.

As well as reducing disruption for drivers, these steps are intended to reduce the associated carbon emissions by around 50% and help to meet the target of zero injuries or deaths on the network by 2040.

Roads minister Baroness Vere said: “From digital road models that can predict where maintenance is needed on the real-life road network, to self-repairing road surfaces, and automated cone laying machines, we’re committed to keeping the UK at the forefront of technological developments.

“I’m therefore delighted that National Highways’ vision reflects this, benefitting road users for many years to come with greener, smoother, safer journeys.”

Longer term, the deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles is expected to drastically improve traffic flow and reduce incidents by up to 90%.

Ian Patey, immediate past-chair of ITS (UK), said: “National Highways’ vision for digital roads will transform road transport in the UK; harnessing technology to create greener, safer, more inclusive and more reliable mobility – the embodiment of an intelligent transport system.”

Visitors to the new website will be able to enter a ‘virtual learning environment’ with additional information about how National Highways will deliver its vision and the impact on road users, employees and companies in the supply chain.

The vision for digital roads also goes beyond 2025 and looks forward to 2050 and beyond. Freight platooning, personalised in-vehicle messaging as well as vehicles sharing data, and decluttered roads free from signage are some of the ambitions for the roads of the future.

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