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Transforming Road Maintenance: How Automation and VR Are Boosting Sustainability and Efficiency

Transforming Road Maintenance: How Automation and VR Are Boosting Sustainability and Efficiency
As roads degrade from traffic and weather, accident risks and maintenance costs rise. In the future, robots could efficiently seal surfaces, drones could manage traffic congestion, and virtual reality could enable precise, low-cost inspections from offices. (iStock)

As our roads inevitably degrade due to constant traffic and harsh weather, the risk of accidents and maintenance costs are high. But in the future, robots could seal surfaces efficiently, drones and unmanned vehicles could manage traffic without congestion, and virtual reality could enable precise, low-cost inspections from offices.

The roads we lay across the landscape will, over time, wear down; cracks form and expand, and gradual deterioration becomes inevitable due to constant traffic and harsh weather. This degradation increases the risk of accidents and raises maintenance costs, requiring frequent interventions that often result in traffic disruptions and increased carbon emissions.

The EU-funded Project OMICRON

Now, imagine a road being repaired not by workers exposed to accidents, but by robots that seal the surface efficiently and automatically. Traffic is without congestion thanks to telematic supervision by drones and other unmanned vehicles. The cost of repairs is minimal because it has been anticipated through inspections from offices using virtual reality. 

Themis Anastasiou of LMS University of Patras is part of an EU-funded research project called OMICRON, which aims to increase the automation of road construction and maintenance. According to him,

“Virtual Reality (VR) can be utilized to visualize road intervention scenarios, enabling planners and engineers to assess their impact on safety.”

He leads the developments related to Virtual Reality based teleoperation of robots, and Augmented Reality (AR) based in-site operator support in road maintenance.

“This functionality is particularly crucial in cases where road interventions are carried out using industrial robots, and the worker must be able to control and communicate with the robotic system effectively. VR technology can also support teleoperating activities during the execution phase.”

Digital Twin

Rather than constantly visiting roads to measure their wear, researchers and planners use a complete and detailed digital representation of the road infrastructure – a ‘digital twin.’ Dr. Ander Ansuategui-Cobo, a researcher and coordinator of the Robotics department at TEKNIKER, a leader partner of tasks related to providing smart robotic and automation technologies for road design, construction, and maintenance of the project, delves into this:

“A digital twin is a virtual replica that encompasses all relevant aspects of the geometry, state, and functioning of the road, allowing for comprehensive analysis and informed decision-making.”

Rafael Martínez-Moriano is a member of the R&D department at Eiffage Infrastructures S.A, whose role in the project is to help develop technologies and tools that automate road maintenance. For him, the road of the future must be more sustainable and durable.

“Its construction and maintenance can generate a considerable environmental and economic footprint. The recycling or reuse of old pavement materials or RAP (Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement) or end-of-life tire dust (NFVU) has been highlighted as sustainable and cost-effective solutions for the construction and maintenance of roads sector.”

And these are just some of the concepts the project is working on to make possible the road network of the future.

Harnessing Robotics For Enhanced Safety And Efficiency

The technology that underpins everything we have previously discussed sometimes borders on science fiction. For instance, Dr. Ansuategi-Cobo is working on the development of a modular, multipurpose robotic platform for performing key tasks in an automated manner.

“The modular robotic platform […] allows for adaptation to different needs and operations, using a common base structure to transport and operate various specialized tools.”

Among these tasks it will perform actions such as replacing and installing safety barriers and signage, placing and removing cones, cleaning signaling elements and lighting, or eliminating horizontal markings and sealing cracks in the pavement.

“Automating these tasks can lead to greater efficiency in road maintenance operations that are currently performed entirely manually. By automating hazardous tasks, such as the installation of safety barriers or the sealing of cracks, the exposure of workers to risk situations, such as road traffic, is significantly reduced. The robotic platform can perform these operations more safely and consistently.”

However for this platform to function it requires “eyes” to analyze each situation, every second, in every place, and a “brain” to manage all the information and the possibilities that arise from it. According to Dr. Ansuategi-Cobo, they are working on a decision-support tool:

“The tool is in a crucial phase of development. It aims to integrate methodologies and models for optimal planning of interventions and resources, moving towards predictive maintenance through advanced maintenance strategies.”

But the roads of the future go even further, Rafael Martínez-Moriano explains:

“On one hand, a system for the sensing and automation of machines used in paving works is being developed. This system is capable of measuring and generating the necessary information, in real time, about the quality parameters of the materials and the execution of the works. On the other hand, materials for ultra-thin asphalt pavement layers are being studied and developed, which minimize the consumption of virgin materials and the execution times of maintenance, incorporating the use of recycled materials in the manufacturing of high-quality and durable asphalt pavements.”

For Themis Anastasiou,

“Through VR technology, road workers can interact with realistic virtual environments that mimic real-world conditions, avoiding the risks associated with traffic dangers. In these environments, mistakes can lead to valuable lessons for the road workers instead of significant safety risks.”

TEKNIKER is a leading partner in providing smart robotic and automation technologies for road design, construction, and maintenance. (Courtesy of TEKNIKER)

Cutting-edge technologies 

It is fascinating how something as ancient as roads finds a point of connection and integration with cutting-edge technologies, which are largely the state of the art in their field. For Martínez-Moriano:

“By leveraging innovative technologies and adopting more sustainable approaches, we manage to reduce the environmental impact and promote more efficient and cost-effective road development, which includes greater efficiency in resource use and both economic and environmental benefits, in addition to increasing road safety and user comfort.”

Ansuategi-Cobo concludes that:

“These types of projects have a positive impact on society by improving road infrastructure, ensuring road safety, optimizing operational efficiency in maintenance, generating employment in new specialized areas, and fostering technological adaptation in infrastructure management. Together, these contributions promote a safer, more efficient, and sustainable road environment, while driving innovation and digital transformation in the sector.”