Drones with asphalt printers could automatically repair potholes in the future

Drones equipped with 3D printers could be used to automatically fill potholes as soon as they appear, according to experts speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

The smart city concept would see drones flying over roads during the day to identify and locate newly created potholes.

Another set of drones would then be deployed at night to fill in the holes with asphalt in order to minimise disruption to traffic.

In just one minute, a robot with an attached 3D printer will be able to spray asphalt into a crack in the road to repair it.

Professor Mark Miodownik, of University College London, said Leeds City Council was working with a team of engineers and designers to pioneer the idea of “self-repairing cities”.

He told the Cheltenham Science Festival that Britain’s road network was falling apart due the backlog of repairs and the authorities did not have the resources to take preventative measures.

“Our idea is that when these small cracks happen we want to be able to see them - a drone flying around the road network would see them and another drone would land and repair them,” he said.

“You do it at night and we can do it in about a minute. You stop over the crack, you repair the crack and it’s done. You could stop the traffic at 4am, hold it up for a minute.

“For motorways, it is a different problem, but for roads in Cheltenham and bigger cities, I think night-time autonomous vehicles would have almost no impact on traffic.”

Potholes are estimated to cost UK drivers around £1.7bn in damage every year, which could be alleviated given faster road repairs.

In March, the government said it would provide an extra £100m to repair potholes after severe cold weather in the early months of the year led to more damage than usual. 

Prof Miodownik said the technology could also be used in the construction industry, as a firm in Holland has attached a spot-welding machine to a robot and has been building a structure.

“There are lots of technical issues to solve but we are in the phase now where robots are not a big part of construction,” he said. “But it seems undoubtedly our future that when you look at future construction sites you will see robots building a building or a bridge.

“What that then means is that the repair of that building or bridge will be able to be done by robots because the design will have already taken into account that robots need access.”

Prof Miodownik added: “Unless the public and policy-makers are involved right at the beginning of this technology - which is now - the chances of it advancing to the point where they feel excluded or we can see a future that no-one really wants is high.”

In January last year, the Department for Transport started equipping high-definition cameras to the underside of bin lorries in a trial designed to detect future potholes.

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