Australia’s Victoria testing AI drone tech in road repair ‘blitz’

Victoria road drone

The government of Australia’s Victoria state says it is testing high-resolution sensors, artificial intelligence, and drones as part of what it’s calling a “regional road maintenance blitz” to renovate its aging ground transport network.

As clement weather returns with the nearing of the country’s summer season, officials in Victoria are mounting a drive to repair the state road system that has shown strains of time and wear. Most of that network was built in the wake of World War II. In addition to aging, surfaces have also been weakened by increasingly frequent episodes of extreme weather. In response, Victoria is equipping both official cars and drones with high-resolution cameras and artificial intelligence tech to collect data and imagery across its roads, and find out where problems exist and which among those need quickest reparation.

“The regional maintenance blitz is currently delivering more than 1,000 individual projects across Victoria’s regional network, rebuilding, repairing, and resurfacing more than 1,400 kilometers of some of our busiest roads,” a communique by Victoria’s Department of Transport stated. 

The condition of the ground system has been a topic of growing complaint across the state. Earlier this year a Victoria couple was nearly killed after losing control of their car when the trailer it was towing hit a huge pothole – one of several incidents that provoked the rising demand for full-scale road repair.

The heaviest lifting – and widest roaming – in the government’s new remedial effort has thus far been fallen to camera and AI-equipped cars, which can collect vast arrays of data over broad areas while traveling at the same speed as surrounding traffic. 

More recently, however, funds of over $143,000 have been allocated to loading that tech onto drones for trial inspection of Victoria’s roadways, particularly in places where access may be difficult or dangerous – like bridges – or where density of traffic makes longer and more complete scans from the air safer and more efficient.

“The high-definition images captured by the drones depict even the most minute details, such as hairline cracks, and remove the need for staff to use boats or work at heights to carry out these inspections,” the communique notes. “The drones have also been used in recent emergencies, giving engineers a bird’s-eye view of the damage caused by storms and bushfires, assisting with planning for clean-up and repair works.”

Investment in drones will doubtless rise after current testing in the city of Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne, advances – likely coming from the nearly $217 million Victoria has already allotted to repairing and maintaining its total 19,000 kilometers of roadways. Given the ability of drones to collect data in tricky spots or dangerously heavy traffic areas that humans used to visually check, using the craft should prove safer, faster, more effective, and cheaper than manual methods. 

“In terms of the drones, it means we’re not putting our staff in unsafe locations on positions, and we can make sure they’re safe and getting home to their families,” Grampian regional roads director Michael Bailey told ABC.net. “The software itself saves us about ($181 million) and three years’ worth of work.”

Photo: Melody Ayres Griffiths

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