Construction Technology Hits the Road(s)

Drones, artificial intelligence and other technologies are paving the way for greater efficiency in road building, maintenance and safety.

Infrastructure in general, and roadbuilding and road maintenance in particular, have lagged in technology-facilitated productivity gains compared to manufacturing, retail, and other sectors. But that’s beginning to change as drones, laser scanning, artificial intelligence and other high-tech solutions make their way to the gritty, practical work of building roads and keeping them in service.

This is especially true in California, where Senate Bill 1, passed in April 2017 and expected to raise $52.4 billion in transportation funds over ten years, is already pumping billions into highway programs.

“You may see some of these high-tech firms find new market niches because now you have billions of dollars going into transportation infrastructure and upgrades,” said John Bly, vice president of the Northern California Engineering Contractors Association. “That’s coming real quick.”

A high-tech test bed

California is already something of a test bed for new road construction and maintenance technologies.

On the new construction front, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) are being used on State Route 4 in Brentwood to monitor earthwork volumes on a $74 million interchange project. Instead of a large survey crew measuring new fills and excavations with total stations and prisms, UAVs equipped with LiDAR or photo capture sensors fly over the work site at the end of the day. In a few minutes, all new work is recorded accurately, and the volume of earth moved is calculated automatically. Since contractor payments are tied to earthwork volumes, fast measurements can speed up contract administration and make payments more accurate.

An example of high tech road maintenance comes from Pittsburg, California, where dash-mounted cameras are being used to snap thousands of photos of city streets. The cameras are simple — app-enabled smartphones, basically. The photos and other data (especially location data) are uploaded to machine learning software developed by RoadBotics, a cloud platform road monitoring solution and commercial spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University.

“Our goal is to make it easier for city officials to monitor and manage their roads so small repairs don’t turn into complete overhauls,” said RoadBotics CEO Mark DeSantis. “The challenge of managing roads is not so much filling the little cracks…the real challenge is when you have to repave the road completely. So the idea is to see the features on the road and see which ones are predictive of roads that are about to fail.”

Another pilot project in Pittsburg is using video monitoring and artificial intelligence software from Brisk Synergies to analyze real-time behavior at a dangerous intersection. The project might yield real data about the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of crossing guards, for example. A previous pilot in Toronto contributed to a 30 percent reduction in vehicle crashes after intersection changes were made as a result.

The construction industry as a whole has been slow to embrace technology, but California is one state that’s helping pave the way for the future.