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Highways England plans digital twin of roads network

03/09/21

Mark Say Managing Editor

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Highways England is to create a digital twin of the country’s roads network as part of a new Digital Roads strategy.

Binary code over motorway

It has highlighted the move with the launch of a website on the strategy, also pointing to the creation of a virtual learning environment to convey its vision.

The agency said the strategy is aimed at making roads safer and greener, with fewer disruptions for improvements and maintenance.

It is developing the digital twin with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the EU MSCA COFUND programme, construction and engineering company Costain and the University of Cambridge.

It will replace drawings and static models with digital versions that can identify when maintenance is needed, and combine live data from intelligent sensors in the road surface with a digital twin that visualises the road and its condition.

Highways England said this will reduce the time and costs in on-site inspections, prevent unnecessary delays and reduce emissions from roadworks by an estimated 50%.

The project is funded by two grants: £8.6 million from the EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership and £6 million from the EU MSCA COFUND Future Roads Fellowships programme.

Embrace transformation

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

“All this is possible on a data science foundation, able to generate rich, data driven insights to help us make better decisions.”

The virtual learning environment on the website provides additional information on how National Highways will deliver its plans and the expected impact on road users, employees and companies in the supply chain.

Other elements of the strategy include more digitally enabled design, more automation in operational capabilities, intelligent asset management using data and technology, automated construction, digitally enabled workers, and using digital channels to provide information to the public.

Among the examples of work already underway are the development of a single platform to provide network information to regional operational control centres, multiple trials of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), trials of use cases of connected and autonomous plant, and the use of drones along with the Rapid Engineering Model to build 3D maps of the network.

Long term ambitions

While the strategy is largely focused on progress until 2025, it also looks further ahead to increasing the connectivity between vehicles and roadside infrastructure to improve traffic flows and safety, and the continued development of CAVs.

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

“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.

“Digital Roads will make our roads safer and greener. Improvements and maintenance will be delivered more quickly with less disruption and road users will have a far better end-to-end journey experience, with savings on time and the cost of travel.”

Image from iStock, metamorworks

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