Comment: Digital disruption is shaping Britain’s future highways

Atkins’ Aistis Tamosiunas and Antony Nicholls explain how the company is using digital technologies to assist its work with National Highways.

As a sector, the highways industry is endeavouring to balance capacity, capability, and demand in the most complex environment. Under mounting pressure from funding constraints, unprecedented inflation and the need to adapt to meet Net Zero targets, the challenges we face today have never been greater.

As we shift from an era of major projects, dominated by concrete and tarmac, to operations and renewals, we are embracing a new era of digital transformation in the sector, with an increased focus on efficiency, benefits delivered and ultimately, improved customer experience.        

 A slight change in how a road is maintained or functions as a system can make a significant difference to road users. For instance, changing traffic signal phasing, renewing road markings or road surfacing, or amending the approach to a roundabout to improve traffic flow may be perceived as relatively minor improvements. However, these alterations can significantly impact safety, quality and user experience.

The challenge for us as designers is to identify even the smallest of efficiencies which can be optimised at scale, alongside designing these improvements. By utilising systematic problem-solving methodologies and enhancing standard delivery with cutting-edge technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), we can harness existing data and implement automation across our projects, delivering innovation to benefit clients and the road user.

Working alongside data engineers and data scientists, civil engineers can employ AI and ML capabilities to extract the required information and analyse data from an entire road network. The right approach will yield many new insights that engineers can use to optimise everything from project planning and design production to automatically identifying defects on site and proposing solutions. 

Atkins is working with National Highways on a wide range of projects that use these techniques to maximise the efficiencies and benefits delivered. The teams adopt structured problem-solving techniques to understand the scale of the problem, then analyse potential added value solutions by applying technology to existing engineering processes. Having identified where National Highways could make ‘Digital Transformation’ improvements to achieve the most significant savings, Atkins’ digital champions work alongside the client to help implement automation and innovation to existing systems.

Committing to a continuous improvement programme as part of the East of England Region Design Services Contract (ERDSC), Atkins is applying a similar approach supporting the ongoing operation and maintenance of 1,500 miles of the strategic road network on behalf of National Highways, to drive down delivery costs for repetitive activities, provide quality improvements, ensure consistency and increase the speed of delivery.

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Automation processes have been successfully implemented at three key stages across the East of England contract, including the mobilisation phase, the operational phase and design phase. This resulted in a return on investment (ROI) of up to 20:1, a multi-million-pound saving for the client and a significantly improved delivery performance.

Although digital transformation initiatives and technologies, particularly AI, can bring substantial efficiencies to any project, the key to unlocking those efficiencies is the ability to identify the opportunities in the first instance. To achieve this, organisations need people with the right skills, accurate data and good visibility of existing processes.

Besides AI, there are less onerous forms of digital transformation that can benefit programme delivery and bring more immediate improvements to highways management. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is one such technology that does not require as much investment, in comparison to AI, in order to deploy successfully.

RPA allows organisations to automate repetitive and routine tasks. It involves using ‘bots’ to perform tasks such as data entry, document processing, and other rules-based activities. However, as mentioned previously, organisations need to have a detailed understanding of their processes and remove ‘non-value-added’ activities to get the most out of this technology. By applying RPA, we have the ability to accelerate workflows and free-up skilled staff to concentrate on higher-value-added tasks.

Atkins has embedded RPA in the ERDSC. By automating contract data management activities, RPA monitors programme delivery and helps produce asset visual condition reports. The cost of setting up the technology was as low as £10,000, but the annual ROI is expected to be in the order of 15:1.

RPA is particularly good at automating repetitive tasks that do not require a high level of human judgment or decision-making. Furthermore, it can be used in a variety of initiatives and can improve efficiency, reduce errors and lower costs. With the right approach, RPA can achieve more valuable insights and help clients make quicker and better-informed decisions.

Digitisation is imperative to implementing RPA, AI and ML applications. However, organisations must ensure effective data governance and standardisation for these technologies to deliver the expected returns.

At a time when every pound invested needs to deliver the maximum possible value, the pressure on infrastructure has never been greater. Automation, driven by digital transformation technologies such as AI, ML and RPA, is shaping the future of the UK’s highways infrastructure network. By adopting a systematic and structured problem-solving approach, alongside the necessary skills and expertise, these digital technologies have the potential to deliver huge efficiencies throughout the infrastructure asset lifecycle and help meet the needs of its customers who use the network daily.

Aistis Tamosiunas is Digital and Technology Lead, Highways, at Atkins

Antony Nicholls is a Director at Atkins