Emma Mirabent Roig explains that with Europe’s road infrastructure now being 50 years old, automation promises to make roadway maintenance safer

The deterioration of the European road network has gotten worse in the past decade. Built between the 1960s and 70s, these infrastructures were designed to last about 50 years. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they’re having issues. Over time, roads slowly degrade from natural processes and traffic loads. Repairing them, however, can be dangerous since traffic tends to be erratic. Flaggers and other foot workers are typically the most vulnerable to maintenance fatalities.

Altogether, road asset management is essential to reduce accidents, and automation may help us achieve it.
OMICRON, a new EU-funded project, is automating and industrialising road construction, inspection and maintenance in Europe. The project brings together 16 industry-leading partners. Its goal is to create a future where monitoring is constant, maintenance is smooth, interventions are quick and robots perform the most hazardous tasks.

“The roads will be better maintained, making them safer for drivers and maintenance crews,” says Noemí Jimenez, director of the research and innovation department at CEMOSA, the civil engineering company that coordinates OMICRON. “[The project] covers the whole cycle, from inspection to digitalisation, decision support, robotic activities, maintenance, and retrofitting.”

Pavement inspection with drones and cameras
OMICRON’s mission extends well beyond road renovation safety. It also aims to make it more predictable. An Intelligent Road Asset Management Platform will be developed using state-of-the-art devices, such as drones and inspection vehicles, to provide workers with accurate 3D maps of the road infrastructure.
Using this inspection data, the researchers can create a Road Digital Twin: a virtual representation of the infrastructure that they can use to plan interventions more effectively.

“Having a digital replica of our infrastructure makes managing it a lot easier,” says Jose Solís Hernández, a mechanical engineer at CEMOSA and OMICRON’s project coordinator. “This will create a more agile management of the roadway network and safer access to information and services to users”.

From human workers to robots and brains
But planning alone isn’t enough. As Solís stresses, “Even the simple act of placing temporary road signs […] is a dangerous task. So, the goal is to make most activities robotic and autonomous to reduce danger. Also, improving infrastructure maintenance will reduce expenses in the future.”

José Ramón López, head of R&D at PAVASAL S.A., another partner of OMICRON, offers a more practical example of the project’s possibilities: erasing white lines from roads with a special laser. Traditionally, these lines are painted black. But, as López explains, “[The current] solutions are not effective since the signal remains visible […] and there is also a problem with adhesion to the tyre since the surface deteriorates.”

Robotic platforms can also be used to clean lights, install safety barriers, remove cones, and seal road cracks. Moreover, current methods, such as repairing roads at night, are not time-efficient. Using OMICRON’s preassembled structural components, connections and automation technologies, roads and bridges will be built faster and more efficiently with less traffic disruption.

Upon completion of the remaining stages of the project, OMICRON will demonstrate all developed technologies at specific demo sites. Using the information of an existing bridge in Porto, Portugal, a virtual demonstration will be performed where OMICRON’s experts will design and test a new bridge in-lab applying the mentioned technologies.

Spain will host three demonstration sites. Motorway A-2 in Guadalajara will be used to test communication technologies. On highways around Valencia, crack sealing technology will be tested, while pavement treatment will be observed from start to finish in Seville.
In the final demonstration, OMICRON’s Intelligent Road Asset Management Platform, which incorporates most of the project’s technologies and digital developments, will be tested on the A24 highway in Rome.

All these cutting-edge technologies could one day be incorporated into our everyday lives, making it possible to drive with less disruption on roads that are safer and always in pristine condition.