Drones could inspect rural roads for potholes

A government-supported project to identify new solutions to tackle every driver’s pet peeve of potholes has recommended a trial of drones to assess roads’ state of repair.

The Digital Intelligence Brokerage (DIB) – which had been tasked with collecting potential solutions on behalf of Wiltshire council – said that a consortium of a small and medium-sized enterprises could use this “cutting edge approach” to check the condition of highways in rural and urban areas where infrastructure is sparse. It acknowledged that consideration must be given to the risks of using automated equipment on or above live highway networks.

The DIB also recommended using video streams to inspect the quality of work carried out on highways, and making the shape of pothole repairs circular rather than square to avoid weak points in corners. The DIB has previously proposed graphite nanoparticles in asphalt to reduce cracking, the use of bio-bitumen materials to create environmentally friendly road surfaces, and automated repair operations to minimise risk to road maintenance workers.

It said that its proposed solutions could be used beyond Wiltshire by other local authorities.

Trade body the Asphalt Industry Alliance argued in a report published earlier this year that local councils in England and Wales would need to spend £10bn over a decade to bring their roads up to a good standard.

The Department for Transport said it continues to encourage research into the use of technology to combat potholes, such as through 3D printing to repair cracks and drones to spot road defects.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “Whether you’re a motorist, cyclist or pedestrian, every road-user across our country deserves the best possible journey. That’s why, despite already having some of the best and safest roads in the world, this government is providing millions of pounds to improve them further still.

“This vital funding and work will cut journey times for millions of people, reduce emissions and keep the UK at the forefront of technological developments in roads maintenance.”

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “Additional investment to cut congestion and make pothole repairs better for the future is very welcome. Improving traffic lights can make a significant difference to local roads by efficiently maximising the number of vehicles which can safely pass through junctions, while hitting a pothole can be an expensive and even a dangerous experience, so we look forward to seeing how drivers and road users more widely can benefit from the use of 21st century technology to repair their local roads more quickly.”

However, AA president Edmund King warned that improved pothole repairs will “depend on council priorities and schedules,” explaining that local councils sometimes prefer to wait until a road has reached a point where a large number of defects make it cost-effective to carry out repairs.

“One of the fundamental issues is the depth that a pothole needs to get to before anything is done about it," King said. "An intervention depth of 40mm may be barely acceptable for cars but lethal for cyclists. Arguably, less sophisticated reporting systems like Fix My Street and council websites are more effective than drones because nasty defects are highlighted by the road users themselves. More should be done to advertise this type of reporting.”

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