roadwork

Cecil Township agreed to pay a tech startup $5,000 to evaluate the township’s roughly 100-mile road system.

Township supervisors voted 5-0 Monday to hire Pittsburgh-based RoadBotics, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff founded in December 2016. The company pitches its technology as an affordable and uniform way to assess local roads’ surface conditions.

The company said on its website it uses windshield-mounted smartphones to take video as its employees drive on township roads. It then runs images from the videos through cloud-based artificial intelligence algorithms.

RoadBotics’ software analyzes each frame, taking defects such as potholes and cracks – plus signs of previous work such as patches and seals – into account to create a map with numerical scores. It also includes an image for each roughly 10-foot section of road, and incorporates all the data into a color-coded map.

Supervisors voted following a presentation by Miguel Dickson, the company’s software engineer, and product manager Nikhil Ranga.

“The idea was that if you can find small distresses early enough and start taking action to repair them, this makes it easier and you can save a lot of money doing so,” Ranga said.

He and Dickson acknowledged some limitations of the technology while fielding questions.

Asked by one resident about whether the technology can predict the landslides that plague area roads, Ranga said the company’s technology relies on the conditions of the visible road surface.

“Slides are more dependent on what’s below, or if there’s a wall holding it up,” he said. So far, the company hasn’t seen a case “where we have examples where the data set indicates that that might happen.”

Dickson said Roadbotics’ software can distinguish between concrete and asphalt surfaces, but admitted the company does “not really have a great way of analyzing the condition of a dirt road.” Instead, it separates dirt roads from others: “It basically gets marked as a separate layer for your management,” he said.

Dickson also offered to evaluate the roads whose maintenance is the state’s responsibility.

“As a courtesy, we’ve always included any incidental coverage of state roads kind of gratis,” he said. “We’d be happy to send that to Cecil, and if there was further coverage required that wasn’t incidental to our coverage, we’d be happy to cover that as well.”

The company uses Google Cloud to store the data it gathers, which is encrypted and requires login credentials to access. Dickson said the company generally includes two or three years of data storage in its agreements with customers.

Officials and the company’s representatives didn’t provide a firm start date for the work.

Township Manager Don Gennuso called the technology a “supplementary” measure that wouldn’t replace engineering work.

“From what we’ve seen at the presentation, it’s a time-saving, useful tool, and it should help us create a good capital program to identify future repairs and how we approach future repairs,” Gennuso said.

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