Infrastructure in need

Automation has a part to play in eliminating the causes of friction

Asphalt`s holes on roadbed. Car in a motion.

Once a cab I was riding in hit a big pothole. Transporting me home from the airport; the driver was doing about 45mph on the expressway and hadn’t seen it coming. It was a violent concussion, and while I was concerned about the vehicle, which had apparently suffered some kind of damage and was making a strange sound, we eventually made it to my home.

Afterwards I wondered how many other cars would hit the pothole before it was fixed. I reported the pothole on the city’s website, but imagined that it might be some time before it was repaired, during which time more vehicles would suffer more damage.

In any system there are bound to be bumps in the road every now and then, but if you can figure out what’s causing them, you can catch the issues early and fix them.  Better yet, you can prevent them from recurring, in order to prevent real damage from happening again. For instance, if you want to keep errors from disrupting the flow of payments between buyers and suppliers, you automate their detection in the invoice creation process, catch them as they occur, and prevent them at the source before they can cause problems further downstream. Invoice exceptions, like potholes, only get worse when they’re ignored, with the potential to bring AP departments to a crawl when they finally come to light.

Could this sort of automation address physical infrastructure needs as well?

That idea is motivating researchers at Leeds University, who are developing technology to create “self-repairing cities”.  They envision teams of mobile, self-guided robotic sensors that report problems as they encounter them, to other robots who execute the repairs. Such robots could cover not only roads, but also water mains, electric cables, sewers, street lights and more.

Perhaps such technology could even be built into our infrastructure. Could tomorrow’s roads have sensors that self-report any damage to them? Could the smart cars that seem poised to whisk us frictionlessly from one place to another, be engineered to automatically report potholes they encounter on the way?

A Dutch scientist is asking a related question—could our infrastructure be built of materials with self-repairing properties, so that they could fix themselves without any intervention at all? He and his team are developing a self-healing concrete that contains bacteria that can lie dormant for years and an encapsulated chemical food source that becomes available to the bacteria once it’s exposed to water, which happens when cracks form in the concrete. As the bacteria feed, germinate and multiply, they produce limestone, which repairs the cracks. While it’s surely a long ways from implementation, the idea is compelling.

Whether goods are being shipped from supplier to buyer on rough pockmarked roads, or invoices and payments are moving from buyer to supplier through outmoded paper processes, it’s likely that automation has a part to play in eliminating the causes of friction.

Because while we trust that our roadways will be maintained with some degree of consistency and our invoices and payments will find a way though the proper channels, when those connections are broken, so is our trust in those systems. And unlike a pothole, that is not so easily fixed.

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