UK launches virtual twin of road network

National Highways, formerly Highways England, has set out plans for a digital twin of the road network that can predict the time and location of potholes and other maintenance problems.

A digital twin is a virtual representation of either an object or system, which is based on real-time data and uses simulation, machine learning, and reasoning to help make decisions.

By combining live data from intelligent materials in the existing road surface with a digital twinning system that visualises the road and its condition, the technology is able to identify when maintenance work is needed, with roads able to repair themselves using “self-healing materials.”

The government announced additional initiatives including the development of connected and autonomous plant, off-site fabrication, and modular construction methods.

It said that the plans, which are part of the wider National Highways’ Digital Roads strategy, 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.

“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,” said Elliot Shaw, National Highways executive director of strategy and planning. “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.”

He added that digital roads could help make the UK’s roads, safer and greener, and enable improvements and maintenance to be delivered more quickly with less disruption.

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, construction and engineering company 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 £8.6 million EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership grant and the £6 million EU MSCA COFUND Future Roads Fellowships programme.

“It is high time the transportation infrastructure sector embraces digital transformation,” said the University of Cambridge principal investigator of the grants, Dr Ioannis Brilakis. “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.”

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