York is at the vanguard of a cutting-edge scheme to improve road quality. The city is one of three areas trialling the Pothole-spotter scheme, a project which deploys high-definition cameras on refuse collection and other vehicles to gather data about the state of the UK’s highways. The data will be used to deepen understanding about the road deterioration process, and help to identify a smarter way to maintain our highways.
The project is being led by the Department for Transport (DfT) and delivered by private SMEs, consultancy Soenecs and computer specialist Gaist. It is intended to revolutionise the way potholes are identified and managed, reducing their number and ensuring the highest-performing road network for all customers.
Launched a year ago with a single RCV in Thurrock, Essex, the scheme recently won the Best Use of New Technology category at the Highways Awards. It has been gradually extended and there are now 10 official pothole-spotter vehicles on the roads in York, Thurrock and Wiltshire, including an ‘e-bike’ which has been deployed in York to determine the condition of National Cycleway 65. It is the first time a detailed camera survey will have been undertaken on an important cycleway.
The project’s name is in some ways misleading – the scheme is about far more than the identification or reporting of potholes. Pothole-spotter fuses many of today’s pertinent themes: machine learning, the mining of rich data to deliver improved public services and of the increasing recognition of the benefits of a circular economy which focuses on efficiencies and reuse.
The use of public sector vehicles – RCVs and highways inspectors’ vans – is central to making the project work. Already out on the roads, the project has found a secondary and, ultimately, a hugely beneficial use for these vehicles simply by installing cameras on them.
A medium-term aim of the project is for councils to progress towards a ‘digital inspection’ approach to roads, where highways teams could review near real-time data on the deterioration of surfaces. This would enable them to prioritise and plan work, as well as manage resources more efficiently and effectively than with manual inspections – with the added benefit of a reduced impact on road-users of roadworks and maintenance.
The Pothole-spotter team will be working with the highways, geographic information system and strategic team at City of York Council to develop this approach, which will be trialled later this year. Winter months will provide a further rich seam of data for the Pothole-spotter vehicles as they continue their journey to deepen our knowledge of how roads deteriorate, and to learn in detail about how roads are affected by vehicles, weather and other factors.
The cameras on the official vehicles are capturing 80,000 images a month. The data will be analysed by Gaist using its cutting-edge techniques, and the findings will then be used to develop a long-term strategy for more effectively predicting and preventing potholes.
Each of the trial areas has been selected because of the unique data that it will provide. In Thurrock, for example, the impact of HGVs is a focus area, in York the introduction of a variety of vehicles, including buses and bikes, is helping the project to enrich its data set, while in Wiltshire, later this year, a thermal image camera will be attached to an RCV to identify the impact of heat and cold on the road surface.
Once the tranches of data have been analysed in the spring, an interim report will be published.
In addition to helping councils develop an effective approach to road maintenance, the project will play a vital role in improving road safety. The DfT is also seeking to understand whether the technology deployed on Pothole-spotter could be adopted to aid the management of other assets such as bridges.
The pothole problem is a significant one – councils currently fill nearly two million of them a year. But the potential of the scheme to help meet this challenge is vast, and we are hugely excited about the benefits it looks set to deliver.
Dr David Greenfield is managing director of Soenecs and director of the Pothole-spotter trial