National Highways trials a ‘Spot’ of innovation

16th February 2024
Paige West

National Highways, in collaboration with BAM Ritchies and AECOM, is currently testing Spot, the autonomous robot dog from Boston Dynamics, for geotechnical surveys in various South West locations.

Spot's innovative perspective is utilised to remotely gather data in areas that are difficult to access due to terrain or obstacles near the motorway and major A roads. These challenging locations include steep embankments, areas under dense vegetation, culverts, and spaces beneath bridges and other infrastructure.

Employing Spot for these surveys offers a safer and more cost-efficient solution for inspecting geotechnically challenging sites. This approach aligns with the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges' standards, aiming to reduce the need for in-person surveys, traffic management, and the associated costs and disruptions.

The initiative is a joint effort by National Highways, AECOM, and BAM Ritchies, the latter being the ground engineering division of BAM UK and Ireland. They are integrating this technological solution into their operational practices following successful preliminary tests at National Highways’ Development Centre in Moreton-in-Marsh last summer, which evaluated Spot's performance across various highway environments.

Currently, National Highways is conducting live trials with Spot in the South West to assess its full capabilities. The robot's debut live trial took place next to the M5 in Somerset, equipped with camera technology and a Leica lidar tracker. Further tests are planned for this year to extend Spot's use in geotechnical surveys.

Guy Swains, Engineering Manager within National Highways’ South West Geotechnical team, said: “The initial, ‘proof of concept’ testing has been encouraging and we’re now live trialling the robotic tool with a view to utilising it via our contractors in future survey work, particularly in locations which present challenges for our traditional methods.

“Our structures team are currently working on renewing certain elements of the St Georges railway bridge between junctions 20 and 21 of the M5 and identified a number of geotechnical defects in the ground surface.

“We were brought in to look into the detailed visual inspection and felt it provided an ideal opportunity to give Spot its first run.

“As part of an ongoing exploration, Spot’s capabilities will be tested over a variety of terrains and environments and in differing weather and ground conditions.

“The data from the trials will also be captured and analysed and dependent on results, hopefully we’ll be able to measure an improvement in safety methods and efficiencies and employ the technology in our future work.”

Matt Ewing, BAM Ritchies’ Business Development Manager, said: “Technology can keep our people safe and repeatedly capture high quality data, and having Spot undertake these trials demonstrates capability and evidence for further trials while making efficiencies in the delivery of work today.

“It’s about finding the right applications, and the team is focused on realising Spot’s potential.”

James Codd, AECOM’s Associate Director of Ground Engineering, said: “It’s a significant step, and could complement the existing geotechnical asset management and inspection processes, to improve the safety of inspectors and reduce the impact of their activities on people’s journeys.

“We are working closely with the teams and really believe there could be a permanent place for Spot in the geotechnical asset management toolkit.”

This trial is part of National Highways' broader research and development efforts, including the formation of the Roads Research Alliance with the University of Cambridge and other partners, to foster innovation in the highways industry over the next five years.

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