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Here come the robots

Back in November 2023 came the news that a UK company would be the first to create an autonomous robot that will be able to detect and fix potholes. Arres – Autonomous Road Repair System – came out of Liverpool University and is now being developed by spin-off company Robotiz3d.

The company is developing its technology in three stages. First, there is a system that scans the road and uses AI to identify cracks or potholes. The second stage is to incorporate a crack-repairing system and the final phase will aim to create a system for repairing potholes.

Details of how the various systems will work have not been released. The only published image of the robot is a computer-generated one, complete with a built-in roller for compacting material used to fill potholes.

Robotiz3d’s latest grant from Innovate UK in 2021 focussed on micro crack repair. The robot could roam the streets at night, detecting cracks and filling them with asphalt which would prevent the cracks widening and turning into potholes.

Night-time robot repairs are an idea that Leeds University was working on back in 2018 as part of its Self Repairing Cities project. Researchers invented a way that liquid asphalt could be injected into cracks, planning for drone robots to fly silently around the city fixing cracks at night. Smart cameras fixed onto buses or refuse trucks could be used to detect where repairs were needed in the first place so that the drones could be sent to the right spots.

Although Robotiz3d is claiming a world first for Arres, there are plenty of other researchers working on similar applications. It would be quite surprising if China doesn’t beat the UK to it. After all, this is the country where autonomous vehicles have already been used to pave a highway, the Nanjing-Shanghai Expressway, in 2021. Smaller vehicles are more complicated than larger ones however, because they need more complex AI to help steer them and avoid obstacles.

Chinese developers are certainly working on it. At the Hebei University of Technology in Tianjin, researchers have created a robot that collects information with digital 3D laser scanners, detects cracks and then heats and extrudes asphalt to fill them. And the Chengdu Guimu Robot Company reports that it has created a Road Pavement Inspection Robot which incorporates ground penetrating radar to ‘look’ below the surface too.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a company called Indro Robotics is developing the Street Smart Robot (SSR). Its job will be to check cycle paths to see if they are covered in snow or leaves but with its combination of Machine Vision and Machine Learning it will be able to spot potholes too. The plan is to have it out and checking cycle paths by Summer 2024.

We don’t know yet when Arres – or other road repair robots - will be a commercial product. Robotiz3d says that it has created a rough prototype which it is now testing.

At Thermal Road Repairs, we like the idea of fixing potholes at night. In fact, it’s something that our technology is used for today because it is so quiet, requiring no noisy pneumatic tools – we even have an electric roller.

But we can dream of an automated future. What a wonderful start to the day it would be to wake up, draw the curtains and discover that a squad of robots had fixed all the potholes in the road outside your house.


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