UP’s Engineering 4.0 research hub to set SA’s transport system on the road to a smart future

Posted on September 18, 2020

Consider that South Africa is 18th in the world in terms of the longest paved roads. By “paved” we mean bitumen/surfaced and concrete roads. We have 158 000km of paved roads and a total road network (paved and gravel) of 750 000km.

This offers some insight into the importance of research and development in road construction, road use, traffic flow, transport and smart transport systems – now and into the future, when electric and autonomous vehicles will significantly increase. We need to think ahead and work out how to integrate them into the transport system.

All this is part of the University of Pretoria’s new Engineering 4.0 research and training hub for smart transport systems and smart cities, and includes Africa’s first independent materials testing facility and National Reference Lab. We are partnering with the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL) SOC and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR) Smart Mobility cluster.

Engineering 4.0 is situated on UP’s Hillcrest Campus, and our official launch date is yet to be finalised. With lockdown and the gradual reopening of sectors, this has been delayed, but we have already started using some of the facilities.

It’s exciting, novel work. For example, for the first time in South Africa and Africa, we will have an active test lane that is approximately 2km long on Pretoria’s N4. We’ll collect real-time data and use big data analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) to do tests and analysis on how different road surfaces perform, how traffic moves on the highway, the density and type of traffic at any given time, emissions testing and air quality monitoring.

This data and modelling will support the planning and designing of future transport systems, and support cost-effective and innovative road surface engineering, which is key to South Africa’s infrastructure development.

Roads are designed very specifically for different types of traffic and traffic densities: low, medium or high. When you design a road, you need to calculate how long it will last relative to the cost, as building roads is very expensive. For example, a low traffic scenario typically costs R2 million to R6 million per kilometre, a medium scenario R6 million to R10 million per kilometre, and a high traffic scenario R10 million to R20 million per kilometre.

A huge amount of research is required on different types, thicknesses and hybrids of materials used, where to expand your surfaced road network and how to optimally manage costs while ensuring the construction and maintenance of a quality road. Road construction in South Africa is generally very good, as we have quality transportation engineers and designers.

Engineering 4.0 also serves as a laboratory for the training and certification of laboratory technicians and engineering students, which will ensure that materials testing in the field is of a high standard and that the technicians who conduct the testing are capable and certified to do such tests with a high degree of accuracy. This training laboratory is supported with virtual reality options for learning about testing techniques, providing a precursor (that can be done anywhere in the world) to the real-life testing in the laboratory.

Civil Engineering students will be introduced to hands-on research activities in these laboratories to support their theoretical learning and prepare them for their working life as civil engineers. The hub also addresses the need for a new level of skills among our current workforce and our future graduates.

Engineering 4.0’s main anchor is UP’s Civil Engineering Department (there is a huge shortage of civil engineers in South Africa), and our other engineering departments are also involved. UP graduates 28% of South Africa’s engineers, according to the 2019 statistics from the Department of Higher Education and Training (now the The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation). This includes electronic, electrical, civil, computer, mechanical, chemical, mining, industrial and metallurgical graduates. These are all four-year degrees.

The engineering hub will share its vast resources in technology and data sciences with all faculties via UP’s Future Africa institute and campus – a platform for developing inter- and trans-disciplinary research networks within the university and the global research community. The research, technology and techniques we develop through Engineering 4.0 will be specific to the African context, as much of the technology developed to date is from Europe, Japan and the US.

There has been keen interest in Engineering 4.0’s research, development and training from our academic colleagues in the SADC countries, Rwanda, Nigeria, China and the USA, and now that the facility is ready, we will be engaging with them, developing partnerships and helping to improve efficiencies and capabilities.

Anything that Engineering 4.0 undertakes will include its impact on climate change, the environment and how it contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This includes research by our vehicle dynamics group and Centre for Transport Development on a wide range of issues, such as exhaust-related emissions, tyre materials, braking systems, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles.

For our smart cities research, we will be working with a team of people from different disciplines, including social and environmental scientists, economists, urban planners, architects and lawyers. We need to redesign and integrate living spaces to promote social cohesion, and we need to restructure urban planning so people can live closer to work, reduce travel expenses, take the pressure off the roads and lead more affordable, environmentally conscious lives. More than ever before, we are aware that the future of this planet is in our hands!

Professor Sunil Maharaj is Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology0 at the University of Pretoria.

- Author Professor Sunil Maharaj

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