Jacobs supports National Highways’ Structures Moonshot project


National Highways is looking to revolutionise the way it monitors and maintains the UK’s bridges and other structures by exploring new and innovative ways that will spot potential defects sooner. Research has begun to help National Highways on the ambitious journey towards self-monitoring and self-maintaining bridges with cutting-edge technology and modern methods being sought out for testing.

One of the greatest threats to bridges and structures on National Highways’ road network is the corrosion of steel elements, which are often encased in concrete. The research project, Structures Moonshot, is focused on two specific features in particular: the steel tendons in post-tensioned structures and reinforcement within concrete half-joints, a ‘shelf’ constructed at the end of one span to support the adjacent span.

These features can be vulnerable to deterioration but are difficult to access and often require intrusive investigations to assess the condition. This can require lane or road closures, causing disruption for motorists.

National Highways wants to find solutions that can detect defects sooner and resolve the issues in a less disruptive and a non-destructive way and so launched an open invite as part of the project to find new innovations and technology.

The competition is being taken forward by the Atkins-Jacobs Joint Venture (JV), which will carry out extensive testing and research to identify the most suitable technologies for conducting advanced forms of non-destructive testing (NDT) on structures. The Atkins-Jacobs JV is providing this specialist technical consulting support through National Highways’ Specialist Professional and Technical Services 2 (SPaTS 2) framework. Jacobs brings long-standing experience in developing and validating new inspection techniques and robotics for industrial use.

New ideas are being sought, which may include experimenting with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to detect critical hidden structural defects. Solutions could range from advanced sensors to imaging technologies and machine learning algorithms.

Colin George, National Highways’ Deputy Head of Structures and Project Sponsor for Moonshot, explained: “Robust maintenance and inspection regimes are in place for all of our structures, but if we could find new ways of detecting defects sooner it will revolutionise our bridge maintenance, safety and efficiency.

“The underlying ambition of ‘Moonshot’ is to maximise the benefits of recent and rapid advances in technology, tackling the increasing challenge of managing and maintaining the safety and use of our ageing bridge stock. The aim is to reduce the number of unplanned interventions on our roads network, which will mean a better experience for road users, and ultimately to see the automation of activities traditionally undertaken by personnel on site, such as inspections and monitoring.

“We want to identify the best technology that is already available on the market and try out pioneering new ideas; things we might not have even thought of yet.”

Successful entrants are being given a rare opportunity to carry out real-world testing of their innovation on sample bridge sections taken from the decommissioned A14 Huntingdon railway viaduct. This is providing a platform for entrants to showcase their products to National Highways and the wider industry before the sample is demolished, which will allow participants to validate their results.

James Watson, Non-Destructive Testing Consultant, Jacobs, said: “Ageing bridge structures create a significant maintenance burden for critical infrastructure owners and the communities they serve across the globe.
“This research project is a rare opportunity to test the potential of emerging inspection technologies. By technically comparing different techniques and exploring new and upcoming approaches, the findings can transform the way National Highways manages the UK transport network’s infrastructure to advance safety, resiliency and reliability in the future.”

Testing will focus on two areas. The first is a number of established NDT technologies that were previously identified by the project team for further investigation and are not currently used on National Highways’ structures.

The second focus will be on any new and emerging technologies previously identified in the feasibility stage and those discovered through the competition. This could include the use of AI and machine learning to minimise human intervention and facilitate automated inspections and remote monitoring.

The outcomes of the testing will enable participants to optimise the effectiveness and applicability of their solutions. The results will also be published to allow for collaboration and shared learning across the construction industry.

“This unique project will enable a far greater understanding of the condition of some of the most complex and difficult structures in our transportation infrastructure and could revolutionise how National Highways monitors and manages their condition,” added 
Chris Mundell, Atkins’ Technical Director within Transportation. “The project marks a significant enhancement in the sector’s approach to asset management and has the potential to reduce costs, improve safety and sustainability and avoid unplanned road and bridge closures.

“This appointment represents a further strengthening of our relationship with National Highways and puts us at the forefront of global research and development for post-tensioned bridge management.” 

National Highways is the government-owned company charged with planning, improving, managing, operating and maintaining England’s strategic road network, over 4500 miles of motorways and major A roads connecting the country and driving economic growth.