National Highways sets out 'revolutionary' Digital Roads strategy

Dominic Browne

National Highways - formerly Highways England - has brought together its flagship innovation and R&D ambitions under a new 'digital roads' strategy, complete with its own dedicated webpage and plans for 2025.

The Digital Roads 2025 strategy, released today, outlines ongoing and planned work to support the growth of digital technology and the move to electric, connected and autonomous vehicles.

Under the strategy, National Highways outlined a set of ambitions for the next three years, under three core themes:

Digital design and construction

Digitally enabled design – Scheme designs, and long-term planning is based on fit-for-purpose data and enabled by digital tools. National Highways aims to integrate digitised design requirements, existing data feeds, digital design tools and digital twins, to enable safer, more efficient and greener outcomes.

Modularised and standardised approaches – The aim is to increase the use of offsite fabrication and modular construction and ensure components are standardised to improve safety, reduces carbon emissions and minimises disruption.

Automated construction – Digital rehearsals and the use of connected and autonomous plant should be embedded in construction processes, improving efficiency and enhancing safety, National Highways said.

Digital operations

Intelligent asset management – Data and technology is harnessed to enable predictive asset management. Better co-ordination of roadworks and the deployment of connected and autonomous plant will improve efficiency and reduce customer journey disruption.

Enhanced operational capability – Greater automation and network adaptability is enabled through the use of data and sensor technology. National Highways said that 'when the unexpected does happen, customer safety is enhanced, and traffic is managed efficiently'.

Digitally enabled workers – Digitally enabled workers have access to accurate, up to date and consistent information, enabling them to do their work more efficiently and more safely.

Digital for customers

Information provision – Road users to receive accurate, consistent, and close to real-time journey information through their preferred digital channels.

Customer engagement – National Highways to receive better quality data from road users to inform decision-making and enables call centre staff to provide excellent customer service, as well as the deployment of vehicle technology and connectivity, focusing on the benefits to customers.

Partnerships and alliances – National Highways said it will work with local highway authorities, transport operators, vehicle manufacturers and technology providers to improve customer experience and provide end-to-end journey support.

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.'

Flagship projects

The 2025 targets are part of a wider 2050 vision (see page 12/15), in part discussed previously under the Highways England Innovation and Research strategy.

Among the headline schemes powering the digital roads 'revolution' is the creation of a virtual twin of the road network that could 'predict the time and location of potholes and other maintenance issues'.

The twinning system is being developed in collaboration with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the EU MSCA COFUND programme, construction and engineering company Costain and the University of Cambridge.

National Highways said the move will see drawings and static models replaced with digital versions that can identify when maintenance is needed.

The system is being developed thanks to two grants: the £8.6m EPSRC Digital Roads Prosperity Partnership grant and the £6m EU MSCA COFUND Future Roads Fellowships programme and is earmarked to start operations between 2035 and 2045.

The University of Cambridge Principal Investigator of these grants, Dr Ioannis Brilakis, said: '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.'

Also part of the longer-term vision up to 2045 is the deployment of 'self-healing assets where possible to maximise safety'.

National Highways aims to combine 'live' data from intelligent materials in the existing road surface with a digital twinning system to help identify when maintenance work is needed, 'with roads able to repair themselves using self-healing materials'.

Also, in use or being developed are connected and autonomous plant, off-site fabrication and modular construction methods.

The ambition is that these steps 'will reduce the associated carbon emissions by around 50% and help to meet the target of zero injuries or deaths on the network by 2040'.

Roads minister Baroness Vere said: '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.'

On top of this, National Highways suggested that drones could be in regular use from next year and by 2024 it will deliver 'access to more reliable weather, asset, and network condition data through third-party partnerships and an expanded sensor network for greater oversight, improved safety and control of the network'.

'Longer term, the deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles is expected to drastically improve traffic flow and reduce incidents by up to 90%', National Highways said.

After 2045, National Highways suggests that the ambition for 'naked roads' could be realised - 'decluttered roads, free of any signage, reducing operational costs and providing stress free journeys'.

National Highways is preparing to launch a Digital Roads innovation competition later in the year funded through the Innovation and Modernisation designated fund.

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