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Live Labs Blog: Kent goes international

28 August 2020

From drone and road surface temperature sensor trials, to collaboration with other Live Lab projects and fostering international connections, Carol Valentine, Highways Project Manager Live Labs at Kent County Council, gives an update on Kent’s Local Highways Asset Management Technology Incubator initiative.

By the time lockdown hit us, we had already gone through the discovery process, defining the challenges on our highways and identifying how technology could address them. Yes, we had to recalibrate and change some ways of doing things, such as site visits, but for the most part we were able to carry on as normal.

A big deliverable of our Live Lab is an operational platform. We will be using it to pull together information from a variety of sources including asset management systems, IoT sensors and external data services such as traffic and weather. It will allow us to integrate and visualise these data-sets, matching them with enquiries and jobs. For example, road surface temperature sensors will feed into the platform so that in the winter, we will be able to see which roads have been gritted, which ones haven’t and take appropriate action.

Talking of road surface temperature sensors, it has been really helpful to speak to other Live Labs, such as Suffolk, to find out what they are doing with them. What’s interesting is that although we are not using the same suppliers or technology, and have different purposes, we’ve still been able to compare and contrast to see what is working best. Our collaborative findings will be incredibly useful not only for rolling out the sensors on our own networks, but also for sharing with the highways industry and potentially replicating across the country.

One of our most exciting technology trials is using sensor cameras on drones to identify potholes. To my knowledge, this hasn’t been done on roads before, just the rail industry in the US and parts of the UK. It is very much a proof of concept, because at the moment you can’t use drones on the public highway or beyond visual line of sight.  

Working with Amey, we are doing three trial flights – which have had to be signed off by air traffic control and the civil aviation authority – to see if changes in road condition can be detected. Initial feedback after the second capture suggests that we have been able to pick up sufficient detail, which is great news. A traditional high speed road inspection involves two people once a month, and subsequent repairs involve putting traffic management measures in place. The potential of using drones is huge and if successful, they could also be used to assess other things such as trees and streetlights. 

In addition to these trials, we are also testing new technology from an Irish start-up company using camera sensors in vehicle cabs to pick up potholes. Initially, these sensors will be fitted to buses and our own vans, and trialled over a three-month period. The data will feed into the operational platform and compared with the results of the drone trials and traditional inspections. 

Moving away from sensors, Gipave, a hard-wearing graphene asphalt developed by an Italian company for runways, is being trialled on a busy road in Dartford alongside a more traditional material. Our trial has brought us to the attention of a local authority in Canada, who is also working with a graphene company. They are very interested in what we are doing and going forwards, we will be sharing our learning, giving our Live Lab not only national but international significance. 

We are in a busy phase of our Live Lab and these are just a few of the trials taking place. There is much more to come as we continue to test new and innovative technology to help us address the challenges on the highways.