Highways: boosting safety and efficiency with wireless comms
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The need to keep road workers safe and ensuring that they can work quickly and efficiently in remote locations is driving interest in wireless comms. Sam Fenwick has the details

Keeping Britain moving is not without its challenges. Congestion, accidents and weather can conspire to bring our roads to a standstill. Then there’s the way that our winters conjure up portholes by the dozen. To make matters worse, ensuing that our roads are safe and serviceable is perhaps not for the faint-hearted due to the need to occasionally work close to tonnes of metal travelling at 50 miles an hour (and often more in those areas where motorists tend to ignore temporary speed limits) – in the past 10 years, 14 service provider workers and two Highways England traffic officers have been killed while working on motorways and major A roads in England. In some cases, insult is literally added to injury – the Highways Term Maintenance Association recorded 347 incidents of abuse from motorist over a 20-month period, of which three-quarters were in the form of verbal abuse, while the remainder involved physical violence.

There’s also the pressure to do the job on time and without the need for any rework given the disruption that even small repairs can bring to commuters’ journeys, while without smoothly running highways, it becomes exponentially more difficult for the emergency services to respond to incidents within an acceptable timeframe. For these reasons, the use of wireless communications in the highways maintenance sector could be said to blur the lines between business-critical and mission-critical.

I’m speaking with Andrew Carter, engineering manager, and Steve Clarke, contract manager at telent, a technology and network services company, to learn more about how wireless communications are being used in the highways maintenance sector. Back in 2014, telent won three five-year contracts worth more than £15m with Highways England to maintain critical roadside technology across the East, South East and M25 regions’ motorways and trunk roads. These contracts are managed by Clarke and he says that together they cover “about all the message signs, CCTV, emergency roadside telephones and traffic signals. I’ve got 45 engineers that cover all the reactive and planned maintenance that’s required to keep the technology available for use for Highways England. A lot of the time, certainly in the South East, there’s [a] real need for wireless CCTV solutions.”

He adds that while telent’s customers might not always be able to provide a full list of requirements, they do “want CCTV at critical sites, critical traffic signal junctions, etc. so they [can] know exactly what’s going on”.

Carter adds that “we’re seeing a lot of requests for systems that can be deployed very quickly and easily”. He also says both overt and covert systems are being deployed, and one of the benefits of CCTV is that “if you have an incident out roadside and you can see what’s going on remotely, then you can dispatch the right resources to that location, resolve the issue in a much more timely manner and get people moving again quicker”.

Given that a lot of these sites might be poorly served as far as communications infrastructure is concerned, how is backhaul provided? Do they use 4G with multiple SIMs and/or a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO)? “You can use that approach or you can use a combination of radio and ground-based technologies to do backhaul,” says Carter. “You can get some very good VDSL circuits from British Telecom, deployed very quickly and easily kerb-side now, so they’re quite happy to do that. And it may be cost-effective to run a dedicated line in some situations, especially if you’re building a bandwidth-hungry system, take it to the nearest fibre-pit, break it into the nearest fibre-pit and run it back to where you need it to be.”

Carter says that one of the biggest trends he is seeing in this sector is “increasing demand for a variety of wireless requirements out on the highways. People are now seeing that radio systems are able to deliver very flexible solutions very quickly, and in areas where we don’t have fibre, more efficiently as well.”

He adds that there is also a push towards bringing the office out into the field, with greater use of mobile working applications. “Wi-Fi connectivity is now being seen as a must-have even in road construction, and it makes a lot of sense. He believes that the main drivers behind these trends are health and safety requirements as well as the desire to improve operational efficiency.

Carter says Smart Motorways (which use sensors and variable speed limits to try to improve the flow of traffic and allow the use of the hard shoulder during busy periods) are currently a hot topic, and that the sensors monitor “a whole raft of things”, including traffic flow, temperature and weather, with CCTV cameras also playing a role.

Radio systems for highways
telent has a “toolbox” approach to providing wireless comms, says Carter. “A whole range of technologies are available to us and we put the best technology into the situation to meet the customer’s demands and requirements.” He adds that part of the thinking behind this approach is that “no one technology can meet all [our customers’] demands”.

He adds that the company is seeing more requests for DMR systems than TETRA at the moment, “possibly due to the migration to ESN in the not-too-distant future”, with the majority being smaller, non-Tier III systems. “We’re seeing more systems that are required for point-to-point comms within tunnel environments and those sort of areas – that’s where we’re seeing the biggest demand at the moment, and there’s quite a lot of refresh going on in that area.”

When it comes to ensuring sufficient coverage, he explains that telent relies on physical surveys followed by the use of 3D modelling tools, which the company owns outright, followed with additional tests once the equipment has been installed to ensure the system works as intended before it is handed over to the customer. “We’ll take our own test and scanning equipment, signal generators [to the site]; we’ll go meet the customer, ask them what they want to achieve from the system – when you start asking questions, you find out a lot more detail.”

Given the semi-mission-critical nature of the sector and the harsh conditions that highway maintenance workers and equipment have to work in, it might not come as a surprise to know that when it comes to designing and building radio systems, resilience is one of the key considerations. “Depending on the technology we decide to deploy, we’ll have alternative routes away from the location, so if you have equipment that becomes faulty or a radio path that becomes blocked because somebody parks something in front of it or something happens to take it out of the equation, you’ve always got an alternative route to get away from the location, and that can be by a different bearer or a completely different radio route path away from that location,” says Carter.

While ensuring that equipment has access to sufficient and reliable power can be difficult and expensive when working away from urban areas, Carter says this is less of an issue for telent and its customers’ systems for a surprising reason.

“If we can take power locally, fantastic; if not, we’re not overly stressed [as] we’ve developed our own green solutions, which [allows us to provide] completely standalone systems.” This extends to kerbside-deployed CCTV-enabled radio masts, and instead of needing any mains electricity, “it will be using battery banks, PV cells, wind, all of those elements, to make sure that it maintains communications and connectivity at all times”.

Clarke says the devices he and his engineers use have to be able to interface with Highways England’s Technology Performance Management System (TPMS) service. “It creates trouble-tickets, which [are] basically faults.” These are sent to the engineers’ handheld devices, and when they get to the faulty asset, “they scan the barcode, complete the fault details [and] might carry out any routine maintenance activities while they’re on the site, to avoid a second visit for planned maintenance”.

Staying safe
Clarke adds that telent has a local safety alert app, and if an engineer discovers a potential hazard, such as “an electricity cabinet that’s underwater” – there are a few sites on the M25 in the South East that are at risk of flooding – they can upload that “red risk” and broadcast it to everyone’s devices, warning them not to go to that particular site. The system also is used to warn of less-serious hazards, such as overgrown vegetation, and once these issues are flagged, a ticket is created for telent’s contractors to address the problem.

The company also has its own Telsafe app, which is used for the internal reporting of incidents and accidents, and near-misses; for example, “if they’re parked on the hard shoulder of a motorway and a lorry encroaches the hard shoulder and then swerves back off again”.

Clarke says that “on the RTMC [regional technology maintenance contractor] contracts, we use a system called Argyll, which is a hand-shaking agreement between our call-out helpdesk and the engineers, but we are currently trialling certain lone worker devices, a bit like your Fitbit-type device, so it can monitor people’s heart rates, falls from heights. On the motorway verges there are embankments and we do have to climb gantry ladders for traffic signal heads, etc. Those trials are happening at the moment, but nothing has been introduced as such yet.”

One example of a highways maintenance company that has adopted lone worker devices is Ringway Infrastructure Services, which opted for 450 of Skyguard’s BS 8484:2016-certified MySOS devices. During the company’s trial of the system, when a worker needed medical attention they were able to push an SOS button on the device and an ambulance arrived on site in seven minutes.

Telent makes extensive use of in-car cameras that are linked to TomTom vehicle trackers. Clarke explains that if a vehicle is struck, the TomTom sends an email to him and others that are part of the escalation procedure so they can immediately contact the driver to see if they are safe or require medical assistance. He adds that the telematics system provides him with weekly reports on driver behaviour, following up any speeding, harsh braking or steering events, and gives a mark out of ten for driver performance.

While not every risk can be eliminated in a working environment that is often separated from the flow of traffic by mere metres, it’s reassuring to hear that wireless comms are helping road workers carry out their vital tasks as safely and as smartly as possible.

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