Traffic lights, toll booths and ANPR parking barriers are all automated, but we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the safety and efficiency benefits this technology could bring to highways projects. In our latest article, our Applications & Innovations Manager, Oliver Pulling, discusses Highway Care’s commitment to driving innovation in automation for the highways industry, and the need for the sector to collaborate and invest in the positive change it can deliver.
We’re all used to using tech to make life easier these days. From the facial recognition at passport control, through to the self-check-out at the supermarket, it’s extraordinary how quickly we have adjusted to change. We take for granted the way that tech makes us safer too, by enabling us to make hands-free calls and navigate without a map in our cars, for example.
The efficiency and safety benefits of technology and automation are even more substantial when the principle of identifying areas for improvement are applied to cumbersome and /or hazardous processes. Ever since Henry Ford introduced the first production line for the Model T in 1913, the manufacturing sector has pioneered the use of automation and robotics to drive throughput and safety. More recently, we’ve also seen huge strides in safety and innovation in the construction sector, with VR and robotics helping to reduce site hazards, enable complex tasks and overcome skills gaps.
There are clear synergies between the hazardous site environments and complex challenges we face in the highways sector, and sectors such as manufacturing and construction. Contractors are under pressure to deliver projects as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, while reducing risk, and improving both safety and working conditions for operatives. Investing in new technology and innovative development projects may seem like an expensive and risky exercise, but without a focus on continuous improvement and a willingness to embrace the potential of new technologies, we risk perpetuating the safety and efficiency issues the sector has always grappled with.
What’s more, those safety and efficiency issues don’t just affect those who work in the highways sector, they affect all road users too. As of March 2023, there were 40.8 million* licensed vehicles in the UK – that’s a lots of people at risk where hazards are not mitigated, and inconvenienced when slow road maintenance processes cause delays.
There is no magic wand. And no quick fix either. But recent innovations using automation to engineer risk out of highways maintenance processes demonstrate that, with smart thinking to identify problems, and collaboration to develop solutions, there is huge potential to make roads safer – both for those who work on them, and for those who use them.
Take our Falcon Automated Cone Laying Machine (#ACLM) for example. Developed in collaboration with Senn Engineering in Switzerland, thanks to support from National Highways’ Innovation Designated Funds programme, and embraced by Balfour Beatty through Connect Plus Services (CPS), these vehicles have been proven to reduce hazards for workers and road users, as well as offering an efficient automated process. Collaboration took the idea for an ACLM from concept through to award-winning innovation, providing an option to take operatives away from the risk of live lanes of traffic completely, along with avoiding the potential musculoskeletal damage that repeated bending, twisting and lifting can cause. It has also provided a means to remove the distraction hazard of conventional cone laying operations for drivers, as well as opening up options for longer stretches of road to be coned during a single shift.
Automation is also at the heart of our SwiftGate automatic taper system, which provides a safer and efficient alternative to manually implemented lane closures, by avoiding the need for operatives to work in dangerous locations close to live lanes of traffic. The SwiftGate system pivots horizontally using automation technology, and can be operated, monitored and sequenced locally and remotely, with the potential to activate modules individually, in sequence, in groups, or as part of an overall solution with other traffic management products.
At the heart of both of these solutions is the simple principle that the best way to protect people from danger is to remove them from hazardous environments by providing equipment that can carry out a process using automation. At Highway Care, our heritage in developing innovative solutions for a safer future is founded on an ability to devise products that tackle identified risks. As technology has developed, we have added automation to the strategies available for fresh and functional products.
But we cannot drive this positive change alone. There has to be a willingness from across the highways industry to embrace change and invest in putting safety first. That imperative doesn’t just improve working conditions and safety for operatives, it will also aid recruitment and retention in the industry, safety for drivers, operational efficiency and our sector’s reputation.
Automation is not a panacea for all hazard and risk in the highways sector, but it is a tool that we are only just beginning to leverage with developments such as the ACLM and SwiftGate. With more collaboration, creativity and commitment, what else might automation achieve for safety and efficiency on our roads?