Rise of the robots: Is AI about to transform highways?

20/09/2019
Dominic Browne

Journalists love a question to which is the answer is no. Whether artificial intelligence or machine learning is about to transform the roads sector is a question to which, for better or worse, the answer appears to be yes.

A number of AI roads systems are currently available and are developing all the time. The main focus at the moment is on surveying the network, and using AI to identify not just assets but the condition the assets are in.

A common system is to use video taken by a smart phone in a vehicle and then fed into an AI system. The AI then uses algorithms to identify the road assets. This is used by, among others, Gaist on behalf of the Department for Transport to map road markings across the country and Ordnance Survey to boost its business offering to utilities.

Already the results look set to transform how we monitor our road assets, model for deterioration, analyse the inherent safety designs of roads and of course maintain the network.

ITS spooky

Speaking at the Local Council Roads Innovation Group (LCRIG) conference in Blackpool this month, Steve Birdsall, CEO of leading infrastructure data analytics company, Gaist, stunned the audience with his revelations about what AI is already capable of in roads.

‘There is a lot of hype around AI. There is scaremongering and a lot of exaggeration about what it can do, but it is here and it is making a big difference. It is going to make a massive difference going forward – there are some real breakthroughs being made in the world of AI,' he said.

He went on to show an image he described as plain 'spooky' - two sets of images of materials; the first taken by a camera photographing the actual network, the second generated by an AI computer 'to create a training data set for itself'.

'We have now got to a point where computers can generate their own training data to teach themselves...and that is when AI will really explode, when it takes care of its own learning. That is not science fiction anymore; that was generated by our system.

'Our imagery is now being run through an AI algorithm, which can identify 550 types of sign. Other systems can do 30 or 40, we can do more than 500. It can identify all the other infrastructure white lining etc as well.

'We are now getting to a point where we have the real nuances of defects, which is a pretty high skilled job. We now have technology that can do that, not on its own yet to be perfectly honest, but the kind of detail you can go into and the cost has been smashed because of this new technology AI.'

In short, it may not be as reliable as humans yet, but it is not far off. The Gaist system is starting to differentiate between, for instance, different types of concrete. Given a single image it can actually identify the material types present to a much greater accuracy than humans.

Data, data everywhere

The speed and efficiency of the new AI systems in gathering information is genuinely revolutionary but perhaps above all it is the management and analysis of the vast reams of data now being created that may force the sector's hand on AI.

Compared to 2010, Gaist is now collecting roughly eight times more data per km at a third of the cost and with more than double the range of issues that can be detected. Whereas previously it could tell you there was a crack, now it can tell you what type of crack you have on the road.

Mr Birdsall said: 'Virtually all the data collected from contractors and others, one way or another will go through India and other places as well. It is a very manual process. These are very well paid, very educated people but we can only do so much in a manual or semi-automatic way. We have to look to new systems.

'There is no way we can process the future amounts of data we will be collecting using the traditional way. We have to look to new computing methods to do that.'

Putting it to the constant test

Of course things can get a little complicated in a real world environment.

Jonathan Munslow, asset and infrastructure manager south Gloucestershire County Council, is currently rolling out an AI system using RouteShoot video. It uses the same principle of smart phone imagery that is then fed into an AI system.

While there is still the issue of 'false positives' - the machine picked up a pair of trainers as a supposed double yellow line - he said: 'I think you can get reliable asset information with AI and machine learning and it does not have to be expensive... In time they will replace a lot of the data collection and inventory work we do now.

'We are trying to implement AI within the whole asset management approach. We are at a very early stage but we are proving to ourselves that AI could reduce risk and cost in our highways asset management.

'We have been working on and assessing both inventory and condition of assets. We are looking at point assets and linear assets and as we develop we will go on to polygon assets.

'We have been using signs and road markings as our development assets. I think they are going to be much more important asset as we see the development of autonomous vehicles. Road markings are a combination of point and linear and the machine needs to understand the difference. They present a particular challenge to machine learning and AI. It can be very varied and complicated.'

He highlights that the more varied the asset being identified, the more learning is required and that his team have considered two main systems: 'One is to present two images and say this is good this is bad and just keep on repeating that. The other way is using the system to identify the asset based on confidence. If the machine is 90% confident that’s fine, if its only 50% I need to know where that asset is.'

The uses are extensive and vital. Mr Munslow points out that as well as helping defend against claims, with permitting works, utilities issues, and general inventory; the system could also help monitor the safety standard of the road in a similar way to the iRAP model - currently using manual data entry and analysis.

'You could get AI to tell you where a combination of assets don’t reach a certain standard and that could actually help you investigate somewhere you have non-injury incidents and that could help avoid accidents.'

He concluded: 'For me AI is and will be a constantly developing a mini-system that I believe will be part of our asset management system very soon.'

Although before we all pack up and go home, Mr Munslow argues this means we can divert human resources where they are most needed, not remove them altogether...for now.

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue

INSIDE:

Highways Awards 2021 finalists revealed

Harris leads National Highways into new era

View the latest issue


Highways jobs

Street Works Co-ordinator

£21,153 - £23,791
Do you want to make a difference to how Street Works are managed within Lincolnshire? Lincolnshire
Recruiter: Lincolnshire County Council

Principal Transport Planning Officer

£44,863 - £46,845. In addition, re-location expenses may also be paid.
This is an exciting opportunity to join the Strategic Transport Planning Team at Gloucestershire County Council (GCC). Gloucester, Gloucestershire
Recruiter: Gloucestershire County Council

Group Engineer - Highways Network Management

£40,876 - £45,859 Plus market rate supplement of £3,000, reviewed annually
We are looking for a Group Engineer who will support the recovery from the pandemic. Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Group Engineer - Safety Design

£40,876 - £45,859 Plus market rate supplement of £3,000, reviewed annually
We are looking for an experienced engineer to join our Highways Safety Design team. Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Highways Asset Management Engineer

£30,451 - £32,234 per annum
The post holder will... Telford, Shropshire
Recruiter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Senior Traffic Engineer

£32,910 - £35,745 per annum
This is an exciting opportunity to join Telford & Wrekin Council’s Highway Network Management Team to... Telford, Shropshire
Recruiter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Traffic Signals Engineer

£25,991 - £35,745
An exciting opportunity has arisen for a Technician/Engineer to join the Traffic Signals Systems & Operations (TSSO) team as a Career Grade Engineer. Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Recruiter: Lincolnshire County Council

Transport and Procurement Manager

£48,194 - £52,980 per annum
Are you a Transport Manager looking for a role that is a break from the norm? Andover, Hampshire
Recruiter: Test Valley Borough Council

Traffic Engineers (Highway Design and Asset Management)

£32,910 – £35,745 per annum - fixed term for 5 years
We are looking for highly motivated and enthusiastic people to join our Traffic Engineering team. Halifax, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council

Street Lighting Design Engineer

£18,812 - £35,745
This is an exciting opportunity for you to join Lincolnshire County Council's Street Lighting Team as a Street Lighting Design Engineer. Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Recruiter: Lincolnshire County Council

Project Engineers

£36,922 per annum (Grade H-I)
West Berkshire Council are looking for innovative, enthusiastic and focused Project Engineers. Newbury, Berkshire
Recruiter: West Berkshire Council

Charge Hand (Highways)

£24,943 to £27,067 per annum
We are looking for motivated individuals who are willing to contribute to the team’s growth and success. York, North Yorkshire
Recruiter: City of York Council

Principal Highways Drainage Engineer

£32,910 - £35,745 per annum
Do you want to take a leading role maintaining a large network of assets? Telford, Shropshire
Recruiter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Cleaner Streets and Waste Contract Manager - Communities

£48,809 - £49,794 per annum
Responsible for managing the street cleansing, household waste collections services and community recycling centres Bridgend (Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr)
Recruiter: Bridgend County Borough Council

Senior Engineer Flood & Drainage

£40,876 - £45,859
We make a difference to the environment we live in. Come and help us manage our blue infrastructure. Bracknell, Berkshire
Recruiter: Bracknell Forest Borough Council

Business Support Officer – Passenger Transport

£20,092 - £21,748
You will assist the wider team in ensuring the office functions are delivered in a timely and accurate manner. Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Senior Engineer

£31,339 to £35,754 per annum
We are looking for enthusiastic and motivated individuals who are willing to contribute to the teams growth and success. York, North Yorkshire
Recruiter: City of York Council

Waste Collection Operative - Loaders / HGV Drivers (Hays Recruitment)

Competitive Salary
Hays are excited to be working in partnership with Chelmsford City Council who are always looking to expand their teams and are looking for... Chelmsford, Essex
Recruiter: Chelmsford City Council

Highways Presents

Highways on Fridays

Register now!

Latest Video