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I live in Ohio, where we know that the four seasons are not Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer, but rather Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, and Construction; most of the Midwest could claim this, actually. A lot of the construction that takes place during the warmer months of the year is focused on patching up roads and filling damaging potholes that were created during the colder months. Obviously, these projects are necessary, and much easier to work on during the day, but nothing tries my patience more than when I’m driving somewhere and get slowed down due to a lane being blocked while construction workers are fixing a huge pothole.

Experts from the University College London (UCL) and the University of Leeds are developing technology that could shift these projects to the overnight hours, by using autonomous robots mounted to drones to fix damaged roads.

In the future, Britain’s road network could be repaired by robots – which can fill in a pothole in a minute. [Image: PA/Birmingham Mail]

“This is not just a science project,” said Leeds Professor Philip Purnell in regards to the research. “It’s a social and economic project.

“We’re not just making the technology and then thinking of the effects afterwards. We already did that with mobile phones.”

The robots will be able to fly on drones or “crawl” to fix cracks [Image: Bernd Wustneck]

Professor Purnell explained that the project, in addition to making daytime drivers happier by moving pothole repair to nighttime, is also making an examination of both the economic and the social impacts of using robots to repair roads, rather than humans.

In the next few years, these pothole robots will be tested on actual British streets, scanning the surface to check for small cracks that could grow into larger ones. Then, they can crawl or fly to the cracks and, in less than one minute, 3D print asphalt to fix them…stopping potholes right in their tracks before they even have the chance to develop. The devices would work overnight, so traffic won’t be disrupted as much.

This isn’t the first time 3D printing has been put to work fixing damaged roads, but the project is actually part of a larger Leeds initiative to create what’s known as a Self Repairing City. The goal of the project is to achieve zero street work disruption by the year 2050, by developing robots that can identify, diagnose, and fix road issues, like potholes, through minimally invasive techniques.

According to UCL’s Professor Mark Miodownik, the Leeds City Council is actually working with a multi-university team to pioneer these cities. He told the Mirror that while robots are not yet a big part of construction (a point with which I beg to differ), in the future, “you will see robots building a building or a bridge.”

“What that then means is that the repair of that building or bridge will be able to be done by robots because the design will have already taken to account that robots need access,” Miodownik said.

“This is going to be a big future for us all. What is immediately possible now for ‘self-repairing cities’ is an exciting prospect in all of our lives. This is probably become a reality. There are all sorts of ethical and moral issues in putting robots in a city environment. Unless the public and policy-makers are involved right at the beginning of this technology, which is now, the chances of it advancing to the point where they feel excluded or we can see a future that no-one really wants is high.”

[Image: Joe Giddens/PA]

Currently, the UCL and Leeds team is at the halfway point of a five-year plan, which will culminate in testing the robotic 3D printer drones on damaged roads in Leeds.

Professor Miodownik told the recent Cheltenham Science Festival that due to the backlog of repairs, and the fact that authorities are lacking proper resources to prevent further damage, Britain’s road network is falling apart. That’s where the drones and their 3D printed asphalt will hopefully fly in to save the day…and the street.

“Our idea is that when these small cracks happen we want to be able to see them – a drone flying around the road network would see them – and another drone would land and repair them. You do it at night and we can do it in about a minute. You stop over the crack, you repair the crack and it’s done,” Professor Miodownik explained.

“For motorways it is a different problem but for roads in Cheltenham and bigger cities, I think night-time autonomous vehicles would have almost no impact on traffic.”

The Self Repairing Cities project is also working to develop folding drones that can enter small openings before unfolding and surveying the area, as well as drones capable of delivering surveillance buggies.

Discuss this story and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

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