Accelerating change to break tradition


Paul Schelhaas, CEO of Sunstone Systems, on why the highways sector should be optimistic about tomorrow

With more than 38 million vehicles registered for road use in the UK in 2018 and a with a reported 61% of all trips being made by car in 2017, it is not hard to see why ongoing investment in our road network is absolutely critical for the UK.

Thankfully, the UK is prepared to embrace technological innovation and engage with up and coming SME’s to challenge the status quo and bring our roads firmly into the 21st Century.

Investing for improvement

The Highways England Innovation Fund is a fantastic scheme and one which our company has utilised in partnership with another forward-thinking prime contractor in Kier Highways.

We worked closely with Paul Wilson, network technology director at Kier Highways, Simon Waterfall, technology asset manager and the team to bring our innovative solar powered security and communications system to the Highways Network. A product that offers huge safety, environmental and cost saving benefits to Highways England.

In total £150m of funding has been made available specifically for funding Innovative projects, which meet the overall objectives of Highways England. Our experience with Highways England and Kier Highways is proof that there are opportunities and that support is available to Innovative SME’s.

Delivering clean roads from the ground up

Traditionally, cutting carbon has been a major challenge, especially in the highways sector where jobs tend to be either relatively short, and therefore difficult to justify major investment on cutting-edge clean technology, or incredibly long, where much of the budget is focused on actually delivering the project. Thankfully, there are innovations coming to market that will help cover all bases.

One of the biggest challenges that technology is helping address is in the area of groundworks. Traditionally, this has been a necessary evil when it comes to construction. On major projects, the time and expense required to deliver something as basic as power and lighting can be astronomical and the work required in delivering hard-wired power and the use of diesel fueled generators increases emissions considerably. Then there is the added cost of bureaucracy when it comes to process and sign off, which can be incredibly lengthy and complex.

Of course, road repair and maintenance isn't solely confined to motorways and well-travelled roads. There are many smaller, remote and difficult to access roads, which also require essential work especially in parts of Scotland and Wales.

In instances where there is no existing power infrastructure or accessibility for heavy machinery is impossible, jobs that could and should have been relatively straightforward have proved extremely challenging and incredibly costly.

Yet there are products in the market that address every conceivable barrier when it comes to road repair. Devices that are portable, cost-effective and operational within minutes are not only digitising and vastly speeding up the analogue processes of maintenance, but slashing CO2 emissions at every stage. These products, combined with progressive and open-minded local and national government bodies, are driving our highways sector into the 21st Century.

The road ahead

While these improvements and innovations are happening now, there is also a bright future ahead. The boom in Internet of things (IoT) technology will lead to improved communication between multiple facets of the highways - drivers, cars, signals, maintenance and many more. By integrating IoT compatible products now, the UK is getting on the front foot and taking the right steps to realise its strategic road network plans.

When it comes to improving our highways, the stage is set. There is money to invest, a desire in government and business to address pain points, appetite from local government to engage solutions from local businesses and new, technology-savvy companies developing solutions future-proofed for tomorrow’s world.

With all parties seemingly driving in the same direction, there is no reason why the UK cannot be seen as the barometer of excellence when it comes to delivering truly innovative and cost effective solutions to real world problems for the world’s highways.

Paul Schelhaas is CEO of Sunstone Systems

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