Veteran Richmond Hill-based technology company Visual Defence Inc. (VDI), has teamed with the City of Richmond Hill on a revolutionary approach to addressing the seemingly ever-present issue of potholes. The collaborative pilot project is initiated by VDI and the City of Richmond Hill with support of the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AWN) program and the Ontario Good Roads Association (OGRA).
Canadian winters are notoriously tough on people, but few realize the impact that they have on our roadways. Fluctuating temperatures create a cycle in which snow melts, pools on asphalt and freezes. The constant contraction and expansion results in the inconvenient and often dangerous phenomenon known as potholes— an annoyance that drivers are all too familiar with.
Potholes are costly for a variety of reasons. The first is obvious— vehicle damage. This includes tire punctures, bent wheels, and damaged suspension systems, all of which cost Canadians about 1 billion Canadian dollars in repairs annually. Potholes aren't just an issue for automobile drivers. They also impact motorcycle riders, cyclists and pedestrians through accidents that can cause personal injury or even death.
Municipalities and public works operations across the country are continuously looking for new ways to combat the problem. As the parties responsible for road repairs in their respective jurisdictions, they must meet and maintain an established level of safety quality and reliability. In Ontario, this is known as the MINIMUM MAINTENANCE STANDARDS FOR MUNICIPAL HIGHWAYS O.REG 239/02.
In an effort to minimize the problem, some cities have implemented systems that enable residents to report instances of road damage via phone, email or app. However, they remain an unreliable method as there is no way to guarantee that they are up to date, complete or accurate. Studies show that potholes reported by constituents amount to only 15 per cent of the total repaired.
Municipalities are always looking for innovative technologies to tackle issues such as this. "With our current system, two patroller vehicles, each with a city Roads Operations worker, drive through the city on weekdays monitoring road conditions. Upon discovering a pothole, the staff member enters their findings into a work dispatch software application that organizes the information and generates work orders. City of Richmond Hill Road Operations Manager, Bob Levesque says, “Though this does cut down on some administrative work, an individual is still responsible for driving a route specifically for visual inspection after which they are tasked with manually entering their findings in order to generate a report. The process still involves much work from the team and we are very interested to see how we can streamline this process."
Visual Defence Inc., has teamed with the City of Richmond Hill to develop a solution. “We are proud to announce ROVER, a technology that takes advantage of the exciting branch of artificial intelligence known as machine learning”, states Roy Tal, Visual Defence's CTO. “It is a tiered system that analyzes video captured by smartphone cameras installed on municipal service vehicles in order to detect and classify potholes on the roadways. ROVER automates the detection, classification and reporting process. It will be integrated to the municipality's dispatch system in order to properly direct issues to the municipal public works road operation division”, he explains. “Records of when potholes were reported will be saved so as to assist the municipality in meeting the service levels stipulated in the MINIMUM MAINTENANCE STANDARDS FOR MUNICIPAL HIGHWAYS O.REG 239/02. We estimate that using ROVER provides a productivity improvement of 76 per cent per patroller vehicle and the system provides accuracy of 95 per cent."
"We are excited about ROVER and its possibilities; says Richmond Hill Mayor, Dave Barrow. “By helping VDI refine their technology, Richmond Hill gains access to this technology and we benefit from the improved ability to identify street maintenance issues such as potholes. This is an excellent example of innovation and partnership making us more efficient.”
ROVER eliminates much of the reliance on the human factor. There is no need for an “eagle-eyed" driver to divide their attention between navigating the roads and inspecting the surface for faults which compromise safety. Additionally, the driver isn't required to travel slower than the speed limit and there is no need to make stops. Instead of waiting for an employee to enter pothole locations into an application. ROVER uploads the information automatically and in real-time. Issues are identified the moment that they are discovered and repairs can be scheduled immediately. The system provides an application interface that allows municipalities to connect incidents directly to their preferred work order system. The cloud based system only requires a windshield mount and a smartphone to get started, and is aimed to be competitively costed with return on investment in as little as 17 days. Additionally, other applications for ROVER under development include analysis of lane marking conditions, detection and classification of school and construction zones, and more.
The Ontario Good Roads Association believes that technologies such as Visual Defence's ROVER could benefit municipalities by helping to easily publish current road conditions under the Ontario Road Information Exchange (ORIE), which will aid in increased road safety. “Municipalities could share data obtained from technologies such as ROVER,” says OGRA Manager of Member Services, James Smith. “The data could also be published into the Municipal Alliance for Connected and Autonomous Vehicle in Ontario (MACAVO) system, which is becoming increasingly important as the inevitable future of roadways full of automated vehicles quickly approaches."
Visual Defence and the City of Richmond Hill seek to establish a workgroup to further improve the pothole detection technology. “We invite other municipalities to join our initiative,” Roy says. "During the development phase, there will be no costs to participate in our program and it will allow forward thinking municipalities to evaluate this innovative technology and contribute to road safety."