Digital twin technology set to modernise UK road maintenance

National Highways will create a virtual network to help identify potential problems before they happen

National Highways is set to develop a virtual twin of the UK's road network that can predict the time and location of potholes and other maintenance issues, as part of a wider plan to digitally transform the way the company handles maintenance.

The digital twin system will see drawings and static models replaced with digital versions that use live data to identify when maintenance is needed.

The project is being developed in collaboration 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.

National Highways hopes to combine “live” data from “intelligent materials” in the existing road surface to create a virtual road network. The government-owned company said that this will “dramatically reduce” the need for time consuming and costly on-site inspections, prevent unnecessary delays to drivers, and reduce the emissions generated by roadworks.

It also said it plans to use “self-healing” materials as part of new road systems that reduce the amount of maintenance required.

An £8.6 million EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership grant and £6 million in funding from EU MSCA COFUND Future Roads Fellowships programme will support the project, the company has confirmed.

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

“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.”

This initiative comes as part of National Highways’ Digital Roads vision, which plans to introduce a range of technology to the UK's road system by 2025, including automated construction and “digitally enabled” workers.

National Highways said the vision supports the government’s ambition of "the UK being a world leader in shaping the future of transport" and supporting Britain’s growth.

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The plans will help cut associated carbon emissions by around 50%, the company added, and help to meet the target of zero injuries or deaths on the network by 2040.

“From digital road models that can predict where maintenance is needed on the real-life road network, to self-repairing road surfaces, and automated cone laying machines, we’re committed to keeping the UK at the forefront of technological developments,” said roads minister Baroness Vere.

“The vision for Digital Roads also goes beyond 2025 and looks forward to 2050 and beyond. Freight platooning, personalised in-vehicle messaging as well as vehicles sharing data, and decluttered roads free from signage - these are some of the ambitions for the roads of the future.”

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