Australian garbage trucks to test smart sensors for improved road repairs

11-02-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

A new experiment in Australia will trial smart sensors in garbage trucks to identify and track road damage. What challenges does road repair present, what will the project do, and how could it usher in a new method for infrastructure maintenance?

What challenges does road repair present?

The importance of infrastructure to society cannot be understated; the Romans believed in road networks so much that they invested vast amounts of resources in creating high-quality roads capable of transporting military forces and supplies across the empire at speed. Roman roads were so advanced in their construction that they could easily rival modern roads using water run-offs, multiple layers of foundation, and aggregate followed by a smoothed surface. In fact, Roman roads are so good in their construction that many have survived till this day in usable condition.

While Roman roads were built with solid stone, modern roads are constructed using asphalt, which has several advantages, including its ability to be heated and moulded, its friction properties with tyres, and its ability to be laid quickly. However, the soft nature of asphalt combined with its granular nature sees it wear down fast, and potholes are prevalent in irregularly maintained areas.

Potholes not only cause damage to vehicles, but they can even result in deadly accidents where the local government becomes responsible for any fatalities. Furthermore, potholes can decrease road speed, resulting in traffic build-up.

Identifying where potholes are is very challenging, and most local governments rely on reports from drivers of potholes. Even then, only those that are high priority are fixed. To add complexity to the problem, potholes must first be verified before being assigned for maintenance; otherwise, tiny potholes may get repaired before serious potholes.

Australian city to utilise IoT sensors for road maintenance

Recently, a team of researchers from the Swinburne University of Technology, Victoria's Brimbank City Council, and Optus have come together to try out a new concept for identifying potholes, ordering repair jobs, and authenticating the repair work. Simply put, the researchers will mount a range of sensors onto garbage trucks that will collect data at a rate of 900Mbps, and then stream this data via 5G for remote processing.

Data from the road will include GPS and high-resolution cameras that will be used to create a 3D profile of the road. Potholes that are identified are reported to a database, and this can then be used to check if a pothole is new, if it is in waiting for repair, and if the repair itself was done correctly. The addition of IoT sensors to garbage trucks allows for monitoring of roads without the need for additional infrastructure as garbage trucks already have to drive down most roads to collect refuse.

However, it is not just potholes that the new system can identify; even road signs and bus shelters can be checked for damage thanks to the use of AI vision technologies. Thus, all aspects of road maintenance can be performed from a single platform.

How does this new project demonstrate a new era for automation?

While the use of 5G and AI technologies to monitor the conditions of roads will prove to be a massive benefit for local governments, the use of pre-existing infrastructure (garbage trucks) is ingenious because they are already required to travel down most roads. Furthermore, the use of automation in cataloguing damage removes the need for any additional personnel, allowing it to be integrated into pre-existing government infrastructure at a minimal cost.

Thus, there may be other areas of government that can be upgraded with smart sensors and automation systems to help monitor and control various aspects of life. For example, the use of cameras with automatic license plate recognition could be used to track and identify stolen vehicles without the need for police intervention, and the use of litter monitoring could identify individuals who are illegally fly-tipping.

This use of 5G and IoT sensors presents a strong case as to the importance of cellular networks in internet-connected devices, and the rollout of 5G must continue so that future smart city projects can be set up with ease.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.