Much of the asphalt industry has remained unchanged. The basic components of asphalt paving, for example, are still 95 percent aggregates or small rocks and five percent asphalt cement. The aggregates can be a mix of different stockpiles. A binder is added to the mix to form a black, viscous, semi-solid petroleum product that hardens into a tough surface upon cooling. This much remains the same.
What has changed in the last decade is that technology has now become such a big part of the asphalt industry. From project planning and management to mapping, mixing, and paving, technology is now being integrated into these processes.
- Planning and Logistics
Asphalt is primarily used for road construction. These are projects that are often large-scale and require plenty of planning and check-and-balances with internal departments (e.g., engineering, human resources, and recruitment) as well as partners, suppliers, stakeholders, government offices, and private property owners.
Asphalt contractors integrate technology in these areas by utilizing process monitoring solutions, engineering and design software, project management, and human resources management tools. These products help contractors ensure that materials and equipment arrive on time at the right location, for example, and track real-time deliveries, delays, and potential roadblocks to the timely completion of a project.
- Modern Tools for Site Preparations
For new road constructions and rehabilitation, engineers and contractors need to get accurate measurements of distances, elevations, slopes, and grades. Instead of using the outdated site glass or a traditional transit, contractors now use laser-guided transits. They are easier and more convenient to use because they can give readouts for long distances.
Similarly, contractors today now use nuclear density compaction testing to determine the integrity of a would-be road’s sub-base. It is an additional step in the site preparation process that is worth taking: if small pockets form in the sub-base even after compaction, it means the integrity of the entire sub-base is inconsistent. This can cause surface problems for the asphalt road later on.
- 3D Printing Technology for Road Repairs
Research studies on the efficacy of 3D printing for asphalt road repairs have shown that automation works very well in infrastructural developments. It works so well, in fact, that simulations conducted road repairs without a human in the area.
Drones bearing traffic cones surrounded an area in a street that needed repairs. Once in place, another drone bearing a 3D asphalt printer followed and soon began filling the cracked road with asphalt. The cones provided enough warning and protection for the 3D printer as they diverted oncoming traffic away from the repair site. The test took place at night, but it shows promise for daytime repairs.
Researchers from Leeds University and University College London have also built their own prototypes of 3D asphalt printers on drones as part of their collaborative research program called Self-Repairing Cities. The implications of these tests are monumental: if approved and implemented for government infrastructure projects, asphalt road repairs in the future will be much faster and cost way less than they do now.
- Machine Vision and AI
Paving roads is one of the high-risk jobs that exist today. Workers have to move in and around huge, heavy machinery like piston rollers and concrete mixers. Even if they are decked from head to toe with construction PPE, their helmets and workers’ jumpsuits are no match against the crush of oncoming heavy equipment. Working out on busy streets, they are also vulnerable to passing motorists and must endure the physical toll of asphalt paving.
Forward-thinking contractors are taking the lead in both construction and worker safety by investing in machine vision technology and artificial intelligence.
It seems unlikely at first, but there is indeed room for “seeing and thinking” machines in road construction. Asphalt pavers with 360-degree vision systems that stitch together multiple camera views can give operators a clear view of their surroundings (including blind spots) without having to turn away from the road before them.
Radar sensors with proximity warnings that are similar to the ones used in warehouses are also useful for asphalt road paving. Operators of heavy machinery can only keep an eye on so many things at once. With proximity sensors, they will at least have ample warning that people or objects are approaching the avoidance zone (via visual or sound alarm). They can correct their course, slow down, or stop and avoid collisions and other accidents.
Technology Is Welcome in the Asphalt Industry
There’s more that technology can contribute to the asphalt industry. From process- or machine-specific solutions to materials enhanced through technologically-improved manufacturing, technology can improve the current methodologies and make road repairs or construction more efficient.