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How does technology impact engineering?

In the past the solution to infrastructure problems was invariably to build more: more roads, more railway lines and more water treatment works.

But in recent decades it has become increasingly clear it is no longer possible to address complex challenges with construction alone. Instead there is a growing need to make our existing infrastructure work more efficiently and to increase its capacity through the use of complex engineering using integrated technology.

'The latest smart technologies are converging to increase current capacity and maximise efficiency'

One company playing a central role in the drive towards intelligent, or smart, infrastructure solutions is Costain. Established in the 1860s, it is known for its work on large engineering projects including the Channel Tunnel and, more recently, the Crossrail and HS2 rail projects.

However, it is now at the forefront of what is billed as “the fourth industrial revolution”, in which the complex engineering techniques for which Costain is respected and the latest smart technologies are converging to increase current capacity and maximise efficiency.

“The idea of not being able to build yourself out of a challenge has been around a few years,” says Simon Ellison, group technology capability director at Costain. “But what’s happening now is that the pace of technology change is faster than ever, making the need for smart infrastructure much more important than before.”

Over the past few years Costain has adapted to this rapid change both organically and through acquisitions, including the purchase in 2016 of Simulation Systems Limited (SSL), a company that provides technology-based solutions for the highways sector.

A new direction

Inevitably data is becoming increasingly important for Costain as it moves into this new industrial era. “We are going from simply collecting data to using it to provide much greater insights for our clients,” says Mr Ellison. Combined with intelligent overlays and machine learning, the smart infrastructure company is also beginning to use this data to provide automated control in different environments, such as on the road and rail networks.

For example, Costain is a leading partner on a number of projects involving testing autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles on UK roads. These include providing the technology integration for the first live trials of connected vehicles on the A2/M2 high-tech corridor in Kent, which it is hoped will form part of a hi-tech road network into mainland Europe.

'If every car on the M25 was connected to one another with automated braking, we could double the motorway’s capacity without having to build any more lanes'

Here specially equipped test vehicles recently conducted a “digital conversation” with roadside infrastructure gathering information relating to road works, road conditions, temporary speed limits and the time remaining before a traffic light turns to green. Artificial borders were also created to mimic driving through European countries while various communication technologies were explored, including 5G cellular and WiFi communications.

In another project, Costain is working with a consortium of partners on vehicle-to-vehicle communication, involving HGVs accelerating, braking and steering in sync (a process known as platooning). One of the key advantages this technology will bring is much better network capacity, preventing bottlenecks associated with non-autonomous driving and smoothing out the flow of the journey.

Mr Ellison says: “For example, if every car on the M25 was connected to one another with automated braking, we could double the motorway’s capacity without having to build any more lanes.”

Costain is also part of the Midlands Future Mobility consortium, which is using more than 50 miles of roads in Coventry and Birmingham to establish the region as an international test bed for connected autonomous vehicles (CAV). “The plan is to compete with China and the US in being the ultimate place to test CAV technology."

'The plan is to compete with China and the US in being the ultimate place to test CAV technology'