Cambridge engineers will explore how Digital Twins, smart materials, data science and robotic monitoring can work together to develop a connected physical and digital road infrastructure system.
The business-led £8.6 million research project, announced in support of the government’s UK Innovation Strategy, is one of eight Prosperity Partnerships being supported with an investment of almost £60 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), businesses and universities.
Dr Ioannis Brilakis, Laing O’Rourke Reader in Construction Engineering, will lead the project titled Digital Roads, which aims to improve the cost, time, quality, safety, sustainability, and resilience performance of expressways. Co-investigators Dr Fumiya Iida, Professor Abir Al-Tabbaa and Professor Mark Girolami will join him. The Cambridge engineers will work in partnership with Highways England and construction and engineering company Costain.
The vision is to deliver roads made out of smart materials that can measure and monitor their own performance over time. The researchers will use graphene infused concrete coatings to enable self-sensing on both the road surface and the median barrier, informing the road’s Digital Twin through robotic monitoring. These self-sensing and self-healing materials, along with a wide range of measured data, will inform the data-science enabled digital processes, resulting in making better design, construction, maintenance, and operation predictions. This will make roads considerably less expensive, more reliable, and safer, allowing highways agencies and councils to identify when repair work is needed.
Dr Brilakis said: “Digital Roads is the beacon of our broader £15 million Digital Roads of the Future initiative, that also includes the £5.9 million EU MSCA COFUND FUTUREROADS Fellowships Programme and other programmes, aimed at jump-starting the digital transformation of our roads sector. Combined, these programmes will build a critical mass of over 50 researchers at Cambridge over the next five years, working collaboratively with Highways England, Costain and many other industry partners to rethink roads delivery and management, deliver impact directly to all partners involved, and set the foundations for a long-term Institute on the Future of Roads.”
Professor Girolami, Sir Kirby Laing Professor of Civil Engineering, Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair at the University of Cambridge, Academic Director for CSIC and Programme Director for Data-Centric Engineering at The Alan Turing Institute, said: “We can consider Digital Roads as providing one of the components of the cyber-physical fabric essential for more resilient and robust UK infrastructure. Digital Roads is an excellent example of the need for multi-disciplinary teams adopting a data-centric engineering approach to address some of the grand challenges we face.”
Professor Al-Tabbaa, Head of the FIBE and FIBE2 CDTs and Director of the Resilient Materials for Life (RM4L) programme grant, said: “Digital Roads will enable us to capitalise on our long-standing successful partnership with Highways England and Costain to continue our journey together delivering cutting-edge research and innovations. We have set ourselves exciting and challenging targets to deliver significant advances towards making the UK a global leader in digital roads technology and delivering net zero roads.”
Dr Iida, Reader in Robotics, said: “This project will see robotics and AI technologies applied to the high-impact application area of civil engineering, where a considerable growth margin is expected. Academic researchers will be better connected and able to collaborate with industrial partners to achieve real-life impact with their research.”
By 2030, the Digital Roads team aims to develop outcomes to a commercial stage and to follow the same development journey for other road assets such as bridges and tunnels, followed by the entire strategic road network by 2040. This will ensure that roads become safer, serviceable at a lower cost, and maintained more efficiently and sustainably, reducing the emissions generated by roadworks, and preventing unnecessary delays to motorists.
Prosperity Partnerships build on existing UK strengths in industry and academia to develop new technologies, processes, and skills that will deliver economic growth and create jobs across the UK.
EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Dame Lynn Gladden said: “Artificial intelligence, digital chemistry and Digital Twins are some of the new and transformative technologies that will help to drive the Net Zero revolution, address major societal challenges, and deliver prosperity to the UK.
“By bringing together UK businesses and universities, these new Prosperity Partnerships will generate the knowledge and innovations that will enable these cutting-edge technologies to realise their transformative potential across a diverse range of sectors.”