Government to trial automated vehicles in motorway maintenance

Machines will eliminate need for heavy cones to be manually laid on busy roads


Photo: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence v3.0

By Sam Trendall

22 Jan 2020

Highways England is to trial the use of automated vehicles to lay cones on major roads where maintenance or upgrades is taking place.

This work is currently carried out manually by teams of two people, who have to operate with great care and speed, as vehicles fly past just inches away. Cone-laying (pictured above) invariably takes place at night, and in all weather conditions. 

For a typical road closure of about 2.5 miles in length, maintenance staff will need to lay up to 300 cones – each of which weighs about 22lbs. Over the course of a shift, a team of two will be required to lift a cumulative total of about 10 tonnes of equipment, including cones, sandbags, lamps, and signs.


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Highways England said that “to date, ergonomics experts have struggled to identify a suitable method of placing and removing cones that doesn’t have an impact on workers due to the twisting of the body required and environmental conditions that the work is undertaken in”.

In addition to the physical strain of the work, employees are also required to spend about two hours working among live traffic.

Using automated machines could be safer and more efficient, Highways England believes. The government company has provided funding for its own staff to work alongside experts from private industry to develop “automated cone-laying machines”. 

Two different models are currently in development, with testing due to take place next month – subject to which, both of them could be in use in live trials on the roads by the end of the year. 

Martin Bolt of Highways England, who oversees the organisation’s innovation work across the Midlands, said: “Safety is always the priority for Highways England, and we are constantly looking for ways to ensure everyone who works and travels on our road network is protected. By taking out the human element in the laborious task of putting out cones, we will be taking out an element of potential risk. As well as taking away this physical labour, these automated machines could also save valuable person hours and allow us to redeploy the workforce to other traffic management duties.” 

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