TECH TALK | Bringing to life the 'finest road paving machine ever built'

Artists impression of Robotiz3ds ARRES model (Autonomous Road Repair System). Picture: Robotiz3d.
Artists impression of Robotiz3ds ARRES model (Autonomous Road Repair System). Picture: Robotiz3d.

Do you remember the original Pixar/Disney Cars movie? It was launched back in 2006 and was somewhat successful.

It grossed $462 million at the box office but also generated $10 billion in merchandise sales in the five years after its release - both figures which I contributed to!

In one scene, Doc introduces us to Bessie, the "finest road paving machine ever built!" Bessie was towed behind Lightning McQueen to lay asphalt on a road.

The idea that a piece of equipment as simplistic as Bessie, with her furnace, asphalt container and heavy roller, could build a road appealed to the target audience, but is probably an insult to road maintenance workers across the world.

I attended the National Local Roads and Transport Congress (more exciting than it sounds) in Mount Gambier in 2011 and after one session that explored all the engineering work that was required for the building of a road, I asked the clever engineers if a machine similar to Bessie would one day be invented to make the job easier.

Laughter was my answer! Well, laugh no more as Liverpool, famous for rock music and soccer, may soon be famous for an autonomous road-repair robot.

Liverpool, famous for rock music and soccer, may soon be famous for an autonomous road-repair robot.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool have developed an Autonomous Road Repair System (ARRES) that will autonomously patrol streets, assess roads and fix cracks and potholes as soon as they are detected.

Road closures for repairs will be a thing of the past as the vehicle will stop, notify surrounding traffic of its presence and complete the repair within a few minutes. Logically it would operate through the middle of the night in the more congested areas and it can operate for many hours between recharges.

But it gets better. Rather than rely on ARRES to perform all of the survey work, the road condition assessment technology can be integrated on to existing vehicles that are already travelling over many parts of a community - such as garbage trucks and taxis.

Road closures for repairs could soon be a thing of the past. Picture: Shutterstock.

Road closures for repairs could soon be a thing of the past. Picture: Shutterstock.

While these vehicles go about their normal activities, they would be collecting data for ARRES to then decide where to travel to next. Once there, a repair would be completed and ARRES would move to the next problem area.

Prevention is certainly better than cure and this system would assess the road condition and repair areas that show small cracks and deviations before they became issues.

Saving money on repairs, reducing potential damage to vehicles and even saving lives.

I spend most of my time looking well in to the future, but the road damage detection technology will be on the market within six months and ARRES itself will be up and running by the end of next year.

This is all part of the changing landscape we see as four crucial technology areas converge: The increased computing power that can deliver artificial intelligence solutions. The rapidly improving area of robotics and what a modern robot can achieve. The range and recharging time a modern battery can deliver. And the ubiquitous connections and real-time data that we have access to with our mobile phone network and GPS systems.

Remove any one of those aspects and ARRES would be near impossible to create.

So ARRES is not quite the magical machine that I would like to see building our roads, but this is just step one. To those engineers who laughed at me back in 2011, give it another decade and I will have the last laugh!

Tell me the first road you would put ARRES on at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is a technologist and futurist and the founder of several technology start-ups.