Digital twins re-imagining cities and streamlining road repairs

Automated AI models fed with road inspection data are benefiting safety by identifying when infrastructure needs attention.
23 August 2022

Safety first: autonomous road marking monitoring enabled through digital twin technology is just one of many big city projects benefiting urban infrastructure. Image credit: Shutterstock.

Selling the concept of a digital twin – a digital copy of real-world processes such as an HVAC system operating at a data center, or manufacturing equipment running inside an IoT-enabled smart factory – becomes easier every day thanks to the big savings that these dynamic and predictive models give users. A particularly interesting example can be found in Estonia – a country that has a magic touch when it comes to understanding the opportunities for digital services.

International appeal

“We are building the digital twin of road infrastructure,” Gaspar Anton, CEO and founder of EyeVi Technologies told TechHQ. Earlier this year, the firm, which has its main operations in Tartu and an office in the Estonian capital Tallinn – one of the brightest spots in Europe for tech start-up activity – raised $2 million to ‘rewrite the road maintenance playbook’. And has been selected by New York’s Department of Transport (DOT) as part of a cutting-edge project using AI and imaging data to examine how quickly road markings wear out in the US city. High-quality data and clever analytics are central to interpreting the challenges of the urban environment.

The project, one of many that the company is involved in globally, plays into the firm’s strategy to make the world’s roads safer for all users, which includes not just identifying when road crossings need to be repainted, but gathering information on all parts of the road and analyzing how its materials change over time. “Lots of this data already exists, but in different registries,” said Anton. “We link all of that data in the 3D environment.” And the potential for savings is huge, by highlighting maintenance issues early before they escalate; allowing road authorities to use their budgets more effectively.

In the UK, the latest Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey estimated that it would cost more than GBP 12 billion to bring roads in England and Wales fully up to scratch. And in larger countries such as the US, the repairs backlog amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars. Through the deployment of digital twin technology and the efficiency gains that come with it – such as the ability to roll out predictive maintenance – EveVi believes it can deliver savings as high as 50% compared with conventional mapping and monitoring.

Upping the detail

Companies have automated the gathering of road infrastructure information before. Intel-owned Mobileye is one example, which worked with water companies to use vehicle data to quickly identify leaks and broken manhole covers, for example. But EyeVi takes the concept further by partnering with the many firms and organizations that are busy inspecting the condition of the world’s roads every day – gathering data on not just essential elements such as signage, but also taking important measurements, including reflectivity and road surface friction readings. “Working with road inspectors gives us the most detailed infrastructure data out there,” said Anton.

Back in the lab, the EveVi team then takes the various information streams and processes them using AI to build a 3D digital version. “We train our models to understand and detect road area features, which includes cracking, potholes, and other defects that need attention on the ground,” Anton explained. The feature-rich output can be used in many different ways and is helping city planners to monitor the safety of highway sections – for example, by warning when trees are getting too close and need to be trimmed.

The road ahead

This service has been a game-changer to customers, who have up until now been mostly relying on humans to navigate the road inspection data, which understandably takes much longer and isn’t easily scalable. Road operators recognize the need for infrastructure to evolve to better satisfy user requirements, and increasingly this includes re-thinking cities as spaces for more bicycles and shared electric scooters – a pay-as-you-go trend that is taking off globally thanks to providers such as VOI, TIER, and Lime “Using our platform for geospatial data production, planners can quickly identify where kerb stones are too high,” Anton points out.

Talking with EyeVi’s founder you are immediately struck by the energy that he brings to the operation. He’s been building talented tech teams for over a decade and became aware of the power of mapping data while working many years ago as a Google Street View driver. “It made me realise that such projects are possible, but also that it was only the beginning,” said Anton. He’s laser-focused on taking EyeVi to the next level, building on the firm’s international successes. And credits Estonia’s vibrant start-up scene as an important ingredient. “Founders need to evolve with their businesses and be a step ahead,” Anton explained. “I’ve been fortunate in being able to find good mentors, which has been invaluable.”