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Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction

An Innovation and Knowledge Centre funded by EPSRC and Innovate UK

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Professor Lord Mair talks to Highways UK about smarter infrastructure

last modified Nov 30, 2015 03:02 PM

Highways image for title page


Image: UK Motorway, courtesy of Castings Services Group

It is estimated that the UK will need to spend in the region of £400 billion on new and refurbished infrastructure by 2020 in order to address historic underinvestment. Britain’s road network is set to receive a long overdue boost in investment. The nation’s future social well-being and economic growth will depend on getting that process right. In order to achieve this, CSIC's Professor Lord Mair is calling for our highways and infrastructure to get smarter.

Robert Mair is a world authority on infrastructure resilience and sensor technologies. In his key note address for Highways UK, the major new conference taking place at ExCel London 25-26 November, he will explain how he and his team at CSIC have been quietly revolutionising the way that infrastructure is planned and built.

"The quality of infrastructure affects everyone deeply," he says, "both in terms of its economic effects and how it supports or interferes with daily life. But there hasn’t been enough research into how best to use smarter information to maximise quality and whole-life asset performance. The emergence of new technologies, such as fibre optics, wireless sensor networks and data management, has enabled performance of our infrastructure assets to be constantly monitored, driving substantial efficiency gains during new construction and in long-term asset management."

The team led by Professor Lord Mair are actively deploying cutting-edge technologies on many of the country’s largest and most challenging engineering projects including Crossrail, National Grid, London Bridge Station and the Network Rail Staffordshire Alliance with impressive results, maximising cost efficiencies while minimising carbon footprint. This includes smart technology that enables the infrastructure to ‘talk back’ about its condition. A tunnel or bridge fitted with cutting-edge fibre optic strain sensors, for example, can inform a maintenance team when a potentially alarming strain concentration or crack has appeared without the need for routine but uninformed inspections, reducing the costs and making maintenance planning better informed and responsive. The Cambridge team have taken these technologies to new levels and successfully employed them in landmark projects such as London’s Crossrail. The potential for highways is obvious.

But the technology is only part of the story. Just as important, according to Robert Mair, has been the deliberate disrupting of traditional planning and research processes to break down the barriers between academia and industry - white coats and hard hats - in ways that unleash creative energy. As Robert Mair says:

"Innovation has to be at the heart of the planning if it is to be truly transformative, so we must talk to each other earlier to make things happen. With over 40 industry partners and around 80 site demonstrations of the latest innovative technologies CSIC has shown how that can happen and what the benefits can be; it requires a real collaboration between industry, government and academia and it works. This approach inspires the practical people to think more creatively and the creative people to think more practically and the results are profound."

That is an appropriate message for Highways UK where Professor Lord Mair will be delivering his speech, a conference that brings together representatives from every part of the highways industry to network, confer and challenge each other.

If the UK’s future highways are to be truly resilient, robust and adaptable to changing patterns in a world of climate change and population movements, Professor Lord Mair’s message will need to be heard.  Technology applied intelligently today will mean savings in money and time tomorrow. We need to build smarter highway infrastructure that can talk to us, but even more, perhaps, we need to learn from disrupters like Professor Lord Mair, to talk much more to each other.

Highways UK logo long

This article was written for Highways UK.

Professor Mair will be speaking at the Highways UK conference running at the ExCel London on the 25-26 November. Highways UK is a major new event bringing together those responsible for planning, developing, managing and maintaining the UK's road network. For details of the event – including the free to attend exhibition and industry briefings – please visit the Highways UK website.