Public Works: Detecting Potholes Before They Happen
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Public Works: Detecting Potholes Before They Happen

British researchers have created an algorithm that scans images of roads to find signs of surface deterioration.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo by PJMixer, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by PJMixer, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Researchers at England’s Nottingham Trent University are developing technology to predict potholes before they actually open up.

What the scanners find is called “ravelling” (the breakdown of material in roadways), which is how potholes start out.

The system consists of 2D and 3D scanners hooked onto the front of a van, which is driven around at normal traffic speeds as it captures images of roads.

Based on changes in the detected road texture, an algorithm judges which rough patches are signs of deterioration and which ones are just oil marks, shadows, or dirt.

Product testing found that the technology can process measurements of road ravelling in 0.65 seconds. The technology’s creators think they can improve that time.

Toronto is particularly vulnerable to crumbling roadways. Our annual dance around the maypole of freeze-and-thaw ensures that water, soaked under and in the cracks of our pavement, freezes into ice and puts pressure on the asphalt from the inside.

In April 2014, when Toronto’s pothole-filling blitz was endowed with an extra $4 million, then-deputy mayor Norm Kelly called the voids an “unprecedented plague” on Toronto.

The problem is progressively getting bigger. Between spring 2013 and spring 2014, the number of pothole complaints lodged with the City doubled. So far, 2015’s crop of potholes is at least as bad as last year’s. Last week, news broke that Toronto road crews were filling in 4,000 potholes per day. And with prime “pothole season” lasting from March to June, the City expects to spend $6 million on the buggers this year.

Granted, it could be worse. We could be Edmonton, which fills more than 400,000 potholes per year—twice as much as the average Canadian city. But Toronto still has work to do.

Right now the City of Toronto has a framework to identify potholes once they, you know, actually exist. There’s an online form that lets you blow the whistle on potholes and other forms of road or sidewalk damage.

At this point, the only good thing about Toronto’s potholes is that they give Kelly something to tweet about.

But if we could harness the power of Nottingham Trent’s ravelling scanners, we could be ahead of the game.

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