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How National Highways is shaping the construction plant of the future

by Sion Geschwindt
National Highways' innovation lead lays out vision for construction plants of the future

Last month, National Highways launched a new system that scores machinery according to its level of automation. Siôn Geschwindt caught up with head of Innovation Annette Pass to find out more about Connected and Autonomous Plant (CAP) and how it is shaping the construction sites of the future

What is Connected and Autonomous Plant?

Connected and Autonomous Plant (CAP) refers to a construction site that is connected to its environment through sensors or wireless transfer of data, while the autonomy element refers to aspects of the vehicle’s operation and movement around a site.

As we know, construction is one of the most dangerous sectors to work in and large infrastructure projects are often plagued by productivity issues. CAP allows more people to work offsite and out of harm’s way, and automated processes help to boost efficiency – keeping work on time and on budget.

When did National Highways start developing its CAP system?

We really wanted to encourage the use of technology on the construction plant, so about three years ago we started engaging with the marketplace and realised that, while there were a number of emerging technologies in the construction plant arena, they weren’t organised around a unified mission.

What we wanted to do as big players in the sector was to take these technologies and accelerate their use and development – not just on our projects but across the industry.

In 2020, we jointly launched the CAP Roadmap with i3P to outline the steps we must take to make our plants as automated as possible by 2035.

The roadmap acknowledges that achieving CAP is not just about technology, but about having the right policies, standards, and protocols in place.

One of most exciting things about this framework is that it was developed in collaboration with almost 100 organisations from across the length and breadth of the industry. There was a lot of excitement and engagement from the participants, who ranged from tech companies and contractors to universities and government departments.

How does CAP improve the way we build?

As outlined in our roadmap, CAP has the potential to improve productivity by more than £200bn by 2040.

The more you can automate, the more you can remove dependence on humans and do jobs faster. A lot of the costs of a construction project come from running the site itself, so shaving a week or two off a job has huge economic and environmental benefits.

With CAP, sustainability and productivity go hand in hand which, when coupled with emerging hydrogen and electric-powered machinery, results in significant carbon savings.

National Highways' innovation lead lays out vision for construction plants of the future
Connected and Autonomous Plant (CAP) diagram (Credit: National Highways)

CAP also opens up a lot of remote working opportunities – changing how we work and who can do that work.

Construction struggles to attract new talent, often because the idea of working out on site isn’t appealing. But being able to operate machinery remotely opens up possibilities for a more diverse workforce.

For people with disabilities or other restrictions, a sector that was once out of the question now presents exciting possibilities.

So are robots going to build our roads by 2040?

Whether it will be possible to fully automate road building by 2040 is difficult to predict. But it’s our ambition to automate our sites as much as possible within that timeframe.

We published our digital road vision last year which encapsulates our mission to remove as many people from site as possible across the entire construction lifecycle – from design through to maintenance and asset management.

We’ve already pioneered an automated and fully digitised design process which provides the foundations for machinery to carry out construction autonomously. As we continue to digitise the project lifecycle and gather more data, CAP will become increasingly powerful.

But this is work in progress. With the complexities of a road-side job, it’s difficult to imagine no humans on site altogether, but I think we can expect to see a much higher level of automation which will bring benefits for all.

Tell us more about the new CAP scoring system?

The new CAP Levels Maturity Matrix will score machinery according to its level of automation. This is the first standardised measure of its kind for plant, though a standard understanding of automation levels already exists for private vehicles.

“It is all about collaborating and bringing about positive change in the broader industry”

The CAP levels will establish a common language and a framework to enable connected and autonomous plant to be specified and deployed on all construction schemes. It also means manufacturers can describe the capability of their products using the same language.

What are the next steps?

Now we’ve launched the CAP Levels, we’re looking deepen industry engagement as well as work with the Department for Transport (DfT) to further adoption and create a more conducive policy environment.

We are looking at the possibility of a publicly-available specification (PAS) in collaboration with BSI. We are also looking at doing a market readiness assessment to keep on top of where the market is going.

There’s a lot of technology that is currently available, it is just a matter of increasing adoption. There are other kinds of technology that need more research and development which is why we are creating a collaborative testbed environment where we can learn from each others experiences and improve going forward.

In the coming years we are going to deploy more technology on our sites on a rolling basis. The work we are doing now is trying to pave the way towards CAP, bringing others along with us on the way.

Although National Highways has funded this work, it is all about collaborating and bringing about positive change in the broader industry.

Main image: Anette Pass, head of Innovation, National Highways (Credit: National Highways)

Read next: Transforming Construction: Building a sector fit for the future

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