Kier team develops smart technology for motorway lighting

New digital tech promises to slash the costly and time-consuming process of repairing motorway lighting cables

A Kier Highways team has developed new smart technology for checking lighting on motorways that could deliver a saving of 500,000 work hours each year and a 50% reduction in lane closures.

The Cable Smart technology, created by Kier and its partners power distribution specialist Lucy Electric plus client Highways England, also offers safety benefits, energy savings and cost reductions.

There are 2,140km of lit motorway in the UK. At present, the cables are inspected manually every six years, costing £9m annually. In contrast, Cable Smart provides real-time remote monitoring of the cables, which picks up problems as they occur, including inefficient operation, equipment faults and wasted energy.

Kier and its partners are investing in researching and developing the technology, which was piloted in Area 9 of the Highways England network in the Midlands, where Kier is the highways maintenance contractor.

Mick Leech, head of electrical safety at Kier Highways, explains the background to the project.

“For the past eight to ten years, the electrical supply industry has used cable monitoring systems to flag up faults, and we’ve modified the technology for use on the Highways England network,” he says. “This is a first for private cable networks.

“The monitoring devices needed to be much more sensitive for the Highways England network, and Lucy Electric adapted them accordingly. Sensors are connected to every cable and every core in every cable.

“Software in the monitoring device measures the current running through the cables with a ‘health check’ every 10 minutes. If there is an interruption or a spike, an alert is sent out – using a cloud-based system – to tell engineers that something is wrong and where they need to go.”

An example of a Lucy Electric Gridkey monitoring device.

Phase 1 of the project started in March 2019 with the fitting of 60 base station monitoring units in Area 9, completing in April 2020. Phase 2 is due to start in early 2021, with the installation of another 300 base units in Area 9.

“We’ve proved the concept and we now have a year’s worth of data which we will use to refine the product during phase 2,” says Leech. “That will include creating graphic user interfaces, developing the analytics, and eventually linking the technology into Highways England’s asset management systems.

“Looking ahead, the intention is to run prediction modelling where we can say when a cable is coming to the end of its life.

“It’s a big leap forward from the current system where we only find out faults from night-time patrols by looking at which lights are on and which are off.

“Cable Smart means safer and more efficient operation of the electrical network for lighting, and safer working for our personnel who no longer have to implement closures and examine and test lighting manually.”

If phase 2 of the project is successful, next steps could see the Cable Smart technology rolled out to the other Highways England areas. This could result in substantial cost and labour savings across the motorway network.

“We project that the installation of Cable Smart will result in 50% less night motorway closures for electrical safety testing, a saving of 500,000 work hours on the motorway per year,” says Paul Beck, Director of Lucy Electric.

“Cable Smart pays for itself from the reduced costs of traffic management for closures alone – and there is the convenience for the motorist of fewer disruptions to their journeys. When rolled out nationally, we have calculated that Cable Smart will produce an annual saving of £3.4m on the motorway maintenance budget for Highways England.”

Further savings could be possible if the technology is introduced to the A-road network.

Highways England’s Midlands innovation manager Lisa Maric adds: “This innovation reduces the need for frequent testing and inspections, resulting in fewer lane closures as well as helping to keep the workforce safe.

“Through investment in innovation and working closely with our partners across the industry, we are making roads safer and improving journeys for drivers.”

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