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From hydrogen fuel-cells to giant airbags, construction and roadworks are changing

Key Points
  • Technology and ideas focused on sustainability and efficiency are becoming increasingly important in construction projects.
  • Ideas focused on the maintenance side of things are also being developed. 
A construction worker at an HS2 building site in the Euston area of London on May 6, 2020.

Often involving thousands of people, large infrastructure projects comprise a range of stakeholders, including architects, designers, engineers and construction workers. 

The way these schemes operate is changing, with technology and ideas focused on sustainability and efficiency becoming increasingly important.

One project that's integrated renewable energy and smart technology into its development is HS2, a major high-speed rail network which, once up and running, plans to cut travel times between London and other major urban centers in England.

In recent weeks, HS2 has released details of several initiatives taking place on its sites. These include the trial of artificial intelligence technology to help the multi-billion dollar infrastructure plan lower carbon emissions and costs, as well as the use of electric construction equipment.

And, at the end of September, it was announced HS2 had been piloting solar and hydrogen powered cabins at site locations operated by the Costain Skanska and Skanska Costain STRABAG joint ventures, which are involved in the project's development.  

Designed and built by a firm called AJC Trailers, and supplied by GAP Group, the buildings use solar panels backed up by a hydrogen fuel-cell. The "Ecosmart ZERO" cabins, as they're known, provide kitchen, toilet and changing room facilities for workers. Designed to be low noise, they emit only water vapor. In relatively simple terms, a fuel-cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat and water.

Across a period of 21 weeks, HS2 said 16 of the cabins saved 112 metric tons of carbon. This, it added, represented "the equivalent of what would be absorbed by over 3,367 trees over a whole year." By contrast, if a standard diesel generator had been deployed, 40,000 liters of fuel would have been used, according to HS2.

While HS2 appears eager to deploy renewable and zero emission technologies across its sites, some have raised concerns about the scheme's wider impact on areas including wildlife and those living near the project. For its part HS2 says it will, among other things, plant millions of trees on the route as well as fund woodland in other parts of the country. 

Taking a broader view, the use of cabins that harness fuel-cell technology is not restricted to HS2. A building site serving the Viking Link Interconnector project, for example, has also started to use a hydrogen fuel-cell for heat and power, again removing the need for diesel generators.

The project is a subsea, high-voltage direct-current link between Denmark and the U.K. that will be 765 kilometers long once completed and enable the two countries to share energy.

Installed in August 2020 by Siemens Energy, the system's kit is placed in a shipping container. Reusable pipes have been installed to carry hot water from the module to areas of the site where it's needed, while a battery storage system is also in place to help boost efficiency and "smooth the peaks in power demand."


While innovative technology is being used on construction sites, other ideas are focusing on the maintenance and operation of infrastructure.  

Last month, for example, saw the roll out of an automated cone laying vehicle on the M54 and A5 roads in the English county of Shropshire, in the West Midlands region of the country.

In an announcement at the time Highways England – which developed the tech alongside "industry experts" – explained the technology would "eliminate the need for roadworkers to do the job from the back of a truck."

This kind of innovation can have an effect on safety — for one thing, it means workers don't have to physically be on the road to put the cones out — and improve the efficiency of operations.

Not all solutions are overtly high-tech, however. In addition to the automated layout of cones, Highways England is also trialing a large sized airbag to protect road workers and road users.

The brightly colored kit can be inflated in less than 10 minutes and is emblazoned with a large "STOP" sign in the center. The idea is to use it to prevent vehicles from driving into areas of the road where works are being carried out.

The trial is being undertaken with construction and infrastructure firm Kier and is slated for this month. The barrier will be used while works take place at an interchange in the city of Coventry.

"On average, our road workers report nearly 300 incidents of vehicle incursions and abuse every week," Lisa Maric, who is Highways England's Midlands Innovation Manager, said in a statement last week.

"It is a far too frequent hazard for our workforce going about their daily job — and the consequences could be fatal," she added.

Maric went on to explain how it was hoped the airbags would "go some way to protecting our workers but also help change drivers' behaviors."

"We ask drivers to respect our road workers, to slow down near works and obey speed limits and signs."