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Technofantasia in action

Image: SDOT Photos

The degree to which supposedly intelligent people can persuade themselves to believe techno-bullshit never ceases to amaze.  From hyperloops and colonies on Mars to solar roadways and devices that pull moisture from arid desert air, we – collectively – have spent billions on technologies that even a reasonably well-educated school pupil could have told us were never going to deliver what they promised.  But despite having no clothes, the march of our techno-emperor continues unabated.

The latest techno-fantasy comes in the shape of a drone with a built in 3D printer that promises to solve the growing disintegration of our roads.  Luke Dormehl at Digital Trends waxes lyrical about the idea:

“Driving on roads covered in potholes is no fun. At best, it can make your ride bumpier and less enjoyable. At worst, it can cause serious damage to your vehicle and, potentially, to its occupants. Couldn’t cutting-edge technology help? Quite possibly yes, claim researchers from the U.K. They have proposed an unorthodox approach to pothole repairs in which cameras equipped with image recognition technology constantly scan the streets for developing flaws, dispatch a drone to the site, and then use an on-board 3D printer to patch the hole with asphalt.”

Nor is this fantasy confined to the realms of the technoutopian regions of the Internet.  The BBC report an apparently serious discussion among county councillors in Flintshire that the drones might offer a solution to their mounting £40 million pothole backlog:

“Labour member Paul Shotton raised the idea when councillors discussed repair delays during an environment scrutiny committee meeting on Tuesday, the Local Democracy Reporting Service said.  He asked: ‘With technology moving forward, should we be considering the use of drones to aid our area co-ordinators?’”

The obvious flaw in the idea is simple enough.  In order to fly, drones have to be built from lightweight materials.  Asphalt – in the quantity required to fix potholes – is anything but light.  Moreover, even the temporary patching up of potholes requires that the asphalt is tamped down into the hole using a heavy weight machine in order to prevent it being removed as vehicles pass over it.  Any drone small enough to navigate urban streets but heavy enough to achieve this task is simply not going to get off the ground.

The university researchers behind the story – who are most likely promoting the story in order to secure more research funding – are all too aware of this problem.  In fact, they are not really talking about fixing potholes at all.  As Dormehl concedes:

“While it might sound like overkill to use drones, image recognition and 3D printing for a simple repair job, Phil Purnell, professor of Materials and Structures at the University of Leeds, told Digital Trends that these systems could actually save money in the long run. ‘When you look at interventions in infrastructure — whether it’s roads, pipes, bridges, or similar — you’re very often using ton and meter-scale solutions for problems that started out as gram and millimeter-scale defects,’ he said.”

In other words, the technology is not intended to fix potholes at all.  Rather it provides a proof of concept for a technology that could theoretically identify and prevent potholes from developing in the first place.  Such technologies seldom scale up; and almost always prove far more expensive than – in this case – sending out a couple of workers on a truck loaded with tarmac to fill in the holes… and there are currently plenty of these if only we could afford to pay for them.  In any case, potholes are usually caused by damage to the road layers beneath the asphalt surface.  By the time these develop into cracks and holes on the surface, the damage has already been done.  Ultimately, only the complete resurfacing of the road will solve the problem (asphalt, by the way, is one of our most recycled substances; with 90 percent of the existing road surface reused).

What the pothole drone story is really about is our psychological need to convince ourselves that our oil-based industrial civilisation is not already well on its way to hell in a handcart.  Rather than concede the obvious – that our days of happy (and increasingly not so happy) motoring are behind us – we reach for the comfort of a hi-tech solution that even a twelve year old can see is – quite literally – not going to fly.

As you made it to the end…

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